Francs, Lies and Videotape

Article excerpt

A dead man's confession about frauds and scams threatens to ruin Jospin, Chirac and the Fifth Republic itself

France doesn't work. This is no glib commentary on the 35-hour week, nor on an economy that is doing well, despite each and everyone seemingly heading for "the street" to pluck the fruits of its success. What has ceased to work is the French political system. That the Fifth Republic launched by General Charles de Gaulle is, to all intents, finished is illustrated every day by the poisonous non-relationship between Jacques Chirac, the president, and Lionel Jospin, the prime minister.

Leaving aside, for the moment, sinister videotapes and raging personal conflict, the idea behind the Fifth Republic is this: a strong president runs the country with a loyal prime minister of his choice behind him. That, clearly, is not the present case. A fallback notion of how the Republic works is that a strong president and a prime minister from the opposite political side share in government. Clearly, that, too, is not the present case. What now?

"For three years, we have borne the entire weight of responsibility and action," says an exasperated Jospin, pointing to himself and his left-wing government. His aim in stressing the breakdown of power-sharing is to eclipse a conservative president who none the less figures in the constitution as the core of power. The French president, Jospin tartly observes, has become "the number one opponent" of the French government.

An astonishing recent fall in Jospin's popularity attests to who is running the country and who must therefore carry the can, but it does not suggest what can save the Republic's power structure. The structure is tinkered with, not redesigned, by the reduction of the presidential term from seven to five years in a surreal September referendum in which voter turnout was near invisible.

As with Tony Blair, Jospin's fortunes have been dramatically turned by the fuel price revolt, which originated, as was to be expected, in truculent France before spreading Europe-wide. Ah, that proverbial week in politics. One moment, Jospin is on top of the world, with a roaring economy to his apparent credit, presiding over cuts in his country's overblown taxes, glowing with a reputation for decency and rigour. The next moment, he is a donkey, misjudging the French, losing yards to Chirac and, worse, bespattered by sleaze.

Again like Blair, the French premier is "listening". Power, he admits, can isolate. But his popularity has sunk not because he gave in to special-interest agitators, which he did (French leaders are apt to do that sort of thing). Rather, it has sunk because he is perceived to have been mean about redistributing the tax taken from an overflowing treasury. On top of that, instead of calming tensions, as a president might be expected to do, Chirac has happily inflamed them. It was unbelievable, the president opined, that when economic growth was looking so good, purchasing power was standing still. (It was not, in fact, standing still, but people were ready to believe it was.)

Where the political structure falls down is in making no allowance for total rupture between president and prime minister. A detour here to videotapes. Jean-Claude Mery, who died last year, was a long-time secret fundraiser for the conservative RPR party, the neo-Gaullist movement that bore Chirac to the presidency. Mery's speciality was extracting bribes on public works contracts put out by the city of Paris, where Chirac was then mayor, and passing on those millions that he didn't cream off for himself to the RPR. Three years before his death from cancer, he videotaped a confession. Mery instructed the freelance journalist who filmed the confession, in the presence of a lawyer, not to release it unless he told him to, or until he died.

Recent reports in the newspaper Le Monde revealing the existence of this video, and thereafter Mery's ghostly appearance on national television screens -with the story that he had handed a huge amount of cash to a Chirac aide in the then mayor's presence -- have destroyed any remaining pretence that Chirac and Jospin can share more than a mutual snarl. …