Lionel Jospin: Europe's Last Chance?

PARIS: For the fifth time in sixteen years the French have switched course, putting the opposition in power. Such fickleness is, above all else, a sign of the disappointment the French feel in the face of the incapacity of successive governments, whether of the Left or of the Right, to keep their promises, especially on the matter of reducing unemployment.

The Left secured only 40% of the vote in the first round, and its success in the second round had a great deal to do with the support it received in one-fourth of the constituencies from the extreme right National Front of M. Jean-Marie Le Pen. The Gaullists used to believe that the sharp division between the communists and the socialists would assure them a very long tenure at the helm of the French state. And under presidents de Gaulle, Pompidou, and Giscard d'Estaing that faith was not misplaced.

Francois Mitterrand turned this situation around by not only striking an alliance with the Communist party (a deal by which the latter became permanently enfeebled), but also by introducing a (by now again abandoned) system of proportional representation, one which allowed the National Front to enter the political landscape of France in force. Nowadays, it is the Right that is paralyzed by its divisions, a mirror image of what the left used to be. As a result, certain conservatives are today advocating the same strategy toward the National Front as that which allowed Mitterrand to succeed so well with respect to the Communists.

The new change of the majority surprised everyone, most particularly Jacques Chirac. In calling for early elections, originally scheduled for 1998, he had hoped to obtain a new confirmation of the mandate of his prime minister, Alain Juppe, who has been beset by ever harsher critiques. Chirac also hoped to strengthen his own bargaining power in negotiations over the common European currency. But the Right's defeat means that, for the second time, Chirac is now obliged to "cohabit" with his old adversaries.