POLITICS IS supposed to be simple. If A goes up, B goes down. In France, politics is never that simple. Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Prime Minister, plunges 20 per cent in the polls. Good news for Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist President? No, he falls 10 per cent in the polls.
Mr Chirac is accused of taking a kickback in 1986. Good news for Mr Jospin? Probably not. The President's supporters immediately share the mud around. They say that the left planted the kickback allegation and, in any case, everyone was doing it at the time.
Result: a plague on everyone's houses and Mr Chirac, the politician with 90 lives, escapes (maybe) yet again.
Five or six weeks ago all the flowers in the French garden appeared to be blooming. The economy was surging and unemployment tumbling. The national soccer team was, again, triumphant. Both Mr Jospin and Mr Chirac enjoyed record levels of popularity. Abruptly, the country has dived into a period of political instability, which started with, but is not fully explained by, the oil crisis.
French voters go to the polls today to decide whether they wish the presidential term to be reduced from seven years to five. Even before the political scandal broke three days ago, six out of 10 voters had decided not to bother to turn out.
The immediate result of the Chirac allegations is likely to be to reinforce France's sudden, puzzling mood of irritation, even anger, towards all mainstream politicians and politics. The turnout today is likely to be even lower than forecast.
Until a month ago, the next presidential election - less than two years away - seemed certain to be a Jospin-Chirac showdown in the second round. Can both men survive in the changed climate?
The allegations against Mr Chirac are serious. A former senior official of his party, the RPR, made a video detailing corruption in Paris's town hall while Chirac was mayor from 1977 to 1995. On one occasion, Jean- Claude Mery said, he handed over pounds 500,000 in cash, in Chirac's presence, as a kick-back on a heating contract for public housing. This money was not intended for the RPR, he said, but for Mr Chirac.
The only problem is that Mr Mery is dead. He made the video four years ago, when he was facing criminal investigation for his fund- raising activities, apparently as a protection policy, to encourage his political friends to keep him out of jail. …