Chirac's Gamble: He Called an Election but Avoided Mentioning the Most Contentious Issue. He May Get Away with It
Davidson, Ian, New Statesman (1996)
When President Jacques Chirac abruptly decided to call early general elections, it looked like a quixotic, improper and quite unnecessary gamble.
In the first place Chirac was defying one of the long-established conventions of the Fifth Republic. French presidents have never treated the early dissolution of parliament as a casual prerogative in the British fashion, to be employed for tactical convenience. On the contrary, they have only dissolved parliament prematurely for one of two reasons: either in response to extreme political crisis, such as the turbulent evenements of May 1968; or else after a presidential election where the new president faces a hostile National Assembly, as in 1981.
Neither of these conditions applies in France today. There has been no sudden crisis. And Chirac's position in parliament was secure, since the governing centre-right parties elected in 1993 had an even more overwhelming majority in the National Assembly than new Labour has in the House of Commons.
On the other hand, this disproportionate centre-right majority of the Gaullist RPR party and the liberal UDF coalition would be likely sooner or later to be vulnerable to the gradual recovery of the opposition Socialist Party under its new leader, Lionel Jospin. And it could be particularly vulnerable, as the president and his prime minister, Alain Juppe, continue monthly to break all records for sustained and extreme unpopularity.
All in all, Chirac seemed to be taking a gamble that could easily go wrong, and even deserved to go wrong, considering his own unpopularity. Throughout the campaign the Socialists in alliance with the Communists have been neck-and-neck with the RPR and the UDF; some polls even give the Socialists the edge.
To predict the result is doubly difficult, though, both because polls are banned in the last week of the campaign, and because the outcome will probably be decided by a large number of critical triangular run-offs in the second round of voting on Sunday week. Yet most commentators seem to predict that, even if the election is neck-and-neck in terms of votes, the conservatives could still come out ahead in terms of seats. In other words, Chirac's gamble may come off.
Now you might think all this would generate political excitement. But you would be wrong. For this election is being conducted in an atmosphere of depression, fatalism and boredom. A small majority would prefer the left to win; a substantial majority expect the right to win; few think much will change either way.
This is partly the result of profound disillusionment with Jacques Chirac. Two years ago he campaigned for president on a platform of lower taxes, lower unemployment and a healing of the social fracture between the haves and the have-nots. Within six months he changed tack, and put as top priority fiscal austerity in order to prepare for the single European currency; as a result taxes and unemployment have gone up, and the social fracture is wider than ever.
But it is also partly the result of disillusionment with the Socialist Party. Jospin is a thoroughly decent and respected politician. …