Magazine article The Spectator

And If M. Jospin Fails?

Magazine article The Spectator

And If M. Jospin Fails?

Article excerpt

THE NEWS in the background was never encouraging. A man in Versailles was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for having burned the national flag, the tricolor. A Paris lycee lost the examination scripts completed by its pupils sitting the baccalaureat. French television presented a programme on the terrible battle of the Chemin des Dames, fought in April and May 1917, which cost some 250,000 lives. French players were rapidly eliminated in the international tennis tournament at Roland-Garros. The former Socialist mayor of Angouleme went on trial, charged with having defrauded his town of millions of francs. And May was the cruellest month for Mr Major, Mobutu and the governing majority in the National Assembly. On 1 June the latter learned that they had lost more than 220 seats.

And the fault, everyone immediately agreed, was that of President Chirac. A dissolution a la Thatcher is impossible in France. The President of the Republic decrees that there is going to be an early election, but he does not then lead his party in the campaign. When the first ballot (25 May) placed the Left in an unexpectedly favourable position, M. Chirac put the blame on his prime minister and arranged that he would no longer hold office. He then activated the mayor of Epinal, Philippe Seguin, who had been an opponent of Maastricht and who, whilst ceasing to hold that view, remained more Gaullist than Alain Juppe. It was as if Seguin had taken over the campaign and would be prime minister in the case of victory (although it appears that Chirac made no promises to him). When, day by day, the confidential polls became worse, Chirac urged the president of the Senate, Rene Monory, and the former prime minister, Edouard Balladur, to dramatise the dangers to France if the Socialists won. But they declined.

Thus from miscalculation M. Chirac proceeded to mismanagement and panic. His prestige has suffered. At home it will be difficult for him to win back political respect. Internationally, his colleagues will have lost confidence in him and will look to the French ministers rather than to the French head of state. This has never happened before in the Fifth Republic. M. Chirac's difficulties will be all the greater since he had publicly stated, during the election campaign, that a period of 'cohabitation', a president of the Republic from one party and a prime minister from another, would be disastrous for France, given the important international negotiations that are pending.

This will be the third cohabitation of the Fifth Republic and it promises to be the most difficult. For one thing, it will be the longest. The Socialist Mitterrand had to work with the centre-Right government led by M. Chirac, as it happened, from 1986 to 1988, the last two years of his first presidential mandate. He then had to work with the centre-Right government, led by Edouard Balladur, from 1993 to 1995, the last two years of his second mandate. But theoretically at least the Parliament elected last Sunday will last until the year 2002, which is when President M. Chirac's mandate will expire. The rhythm of a five-year Assembly and a seven-year president has been upset.

It has always been accepted that the prime minister, responsible to the Assembly, will govern the country, while the president supervises and sees that the laws and institutions of the Republic are respected, and has a particular responsibility for directing foreign and defence matters. This rule is not absolute and is not clearly stated in the constitution. The story is told that in the early days of the Fifth Republic, the legally minded Michel Debre, its first prime minister, explained to General de Gaulle that his function was to concern himself with domestic details such as the price of milk, whilst the General looked after the position of France in the world. The General made no comment but Debre was convinced that he had outlined the position in a manner which was acceptable. …

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