New Times, 2 May 1997

French President Jacques Chirac’s decision to call a snap National Assembly election, with the two rounds of voting taking place on 25 May and 1 June, has put the parties of the left, the communists and the socialists, in a difficult position.

The two-round voting system means that both parties always do badly unless they reach agreement with one another about standing down in the second round. And this time, because of the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, there are many seats where the left parties will have to agree on single candidates in the first round if the best-placed left candidate is not to finish third.

The problem, however, is that they disagree with one another on the most important issue in this election, European monetary union. While the Communist Party (PCF), led by Robert Hue, is against the single currency – as it has been all along – the Socialist Party (PS), led by Lionel Jospin, is broadly in favour. EMU was the brainchild of François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors, and the socialists cannot easily rat on it.

Under Jospin, a likeable 63-year-old who did far better in the 1995 presidential election than anyone expected, the PS has returned to its social democratic ideological roots after the ideology-free late Mitterrand years – and this has allowed it to move some way towards the PCF’s Euroscepticism. The PS has long argued for Europe-wide reflation, but in recent weeks it has taken to emphasising its concern about the strict rule in the Maastricht treaty limiting state budget deficits to 3 per cent of gross domestic product. Unemployment in France is running at nearly 13 per cent, and the socialists have come out against cutting spending to get the budget deficit down. As Jospin put it last month: “If, in respect to the 3 per cent criterion, it is necessary to impose new austerity measures on the nation, my answer is no.”

Rather than austerity, the PS is promising to create 350,000 jobs in the private sector by cutting working time and to subsidise another 350,000 in the public sector.

This programme – which is radically unlike Labour’s in Britain – would mean that France would not qualify for EMU in 1999. This in turn would at very least postpone the whole project and might just scupper it completely. It is no surprise that it is very much to the liking of the PCF.

Whether it goes down as well with the voters remains to be seen, however. Voters are worried about the effects of the deflation and deregulation required by EMU, and the centre-right government of Alain Juppé, which has made a priority of reducing the deficit rather than creating jobs, is highly unpopular. The two government parties, the Gaullist RPR and the centre-right UDF, are almost certain to lose many of the seats they currently hold in the National Assembly.

On the other hand, the right can afford to lose a lot of seats. Both left parties were routed in the last parliamentary election in 1993: in the outgoing National Assembly, the socialists have 63 seats and the communists 24 to the RPR’s 258 and the UDF’s 206. The left also has the problem that many voters disaffected with the government seem likely to opt for the far-right National Front, which has won several municipal victories in the south of the country in recent months – although its candidates will be to the left’s advantage where they get through to the second round and split the right-wing vote.

So a left victory is not impossible, just unlikely. But if it happens, the implications for the rest of Europe could be enormous. Watch this space.

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