Never take your voters for granted, Mr Jospin

Mr Chirac's government failed to keep the promises he made when he won the presidency two years ago
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In a mature democracy it matters how you consult the electorate. The conventional way open to Jacques Chirac, the French President, for refreshing his centre-right government was to have sacked his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, and to have reconstructed his administration without calling an election. But in dissolving the French National Assembly a year before elections were due to take place anyway, Mr Chirac appeared to be considering only his own convenience. He forced a contest upon Mr Jospin's Socialist Party when it seemed evidently unready for combat, and he chose the month of May for the campaign because its many holidays made it a difficult period for the left to assemble its forces.

The French electorate instinctively disliked this. You must neither ask voters questions they do not wish to answer, nor take them for granted. The episode reminded me of Mr Heath's dissolution in 1974 during a period of severe labour unrest. He appeared to be asking the electorate two questions rather than one: "Do you support my government's right to rule?" and "Are you sympathetic to the striking miners?" At the time, many voters felt the answer was "yes" to both questions. As a result, Mr Heath narrowly lost and a second election had to be held six months later to give Mr Wilson's Labour government a workable majority.

Mr Chirac's plan to renew the mandate for the centre-right coalition from which he himself springs had a second flaw. His government failed to keep the undertakings he made when he defeated Mr Jospin for the presidency two years ago. Unemployment has not been diminished, nor has the government been more responsive to people's hopes and fears. Thus when the former president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, commented that the electorate wished to be governed "autrement", in some other way, his remark was endlessly repeated and confirmed the French voters in their resentment of the Chirac/Juppe approach. As George Bush and John Major have both discovered, electorates no longer tolerate broken promises.

Nor are they easily frightened by politicians' tales of doom. Mr Major's warnings that Labour's constitutional plans would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom and undo a thousand years of history were contemptuously rejected. Likewise Mr Chirac's repeated references to the dangers of cohabitation, under which a right-wing president must work with a Socialist government, were counter-productive. By their decisive vote on Sunday, the French replied that, on the contrary, they positively welcome power sharing. Indeed they are looking for a new politics. Mr Juppe recognised this in calling for "un vrai changement"; the president sought a "nouvel elan" and Mr Balladur, the former prime minister of the centre-right, who "cohabited" with Mr Mitterrand, said that a liberal policy "a la Francaise" must be invented which does not simply copy the Anglo-Saxon model.

The indispensable element of the new type of politics is pluralism, the toleration of a diversity of opinions and values, the exact opposite of one aspect of Thatcherism. There is something of this attitude in Mr Blair, with his use of senior business people for some key tasks and his stated willingness to let independent experts comment on legislative proposals before they reach the House of Commons. But whether by necessity or desire, Mr Jospin carries the notion of pluralism much further. He led a coalition comprising what Le Monde called a "strange alchemy" of socialist women, unknown Green candidates and a Communist Party still mutating, but not so fast that it has yet had to change its name.

For the past two to three years, these various strands of the French left have been engaging in a dialogue which, according to Mr Jospin, showed respect for each participant and which was conducted in public. While this process has led to large areas of agreement, Mr Jospin readily admits that differences remain. Chief among these is the Communists' opposition to monetary union. Whereas Mr Jospin wishes a soft Euro-currency rather than the hard form originally envisaged by Messrs Chirac and Kohl, the French Communists are uninterested in any version.

But now that Mr Jospin has won handsomely comes the test of pluralism. The Socialist Party trounced the centre-right coalition but it still does not quite have a majority over all other parties including the Communists and Greens. Mr Jospin has quickly to reach accord with his partners on the open questions. But even if he had secured an overall majority, he would still have wanted to form a coalition. For him, pluralism has its own virtues. He said last week that, were he in a position to form a government, it would have to represent faithfully the "contours and proportions" fixed by the electorate. This seems of a piece with Mr Jospin's character, a mixture of strictness, simplicity and total honesty. People find it easy to identify themselves with him. "I have absolutely no desire to belong to any sort of elevated group. I take real pleasure in being faithful to my origins" he said recently.

Mr Jospin must hope to be Prime Minister for the next five years and then, for the second time, to stand for the presidency. What will he need to be able to say to the French electorate in 2002? He will have to show that many new jobs have been created during his period in office and that unemployment has fallen sharply.

He will have to have dealt effectively with the question of monetary union. On the one hand, it is an imperative of French policy to bind Germany tightly into the European Union; on the other hand French people will go on strike, or riot, if they are asked to pay a heavy price for strict monetary union in terms of employment and taxation.

The project must thus be fudged or postponed; it is more likely to be postponed. And finally, Mr Jospin will have to remain likeable and trustworthy. French voters want a more satisfying dialogue with their leaders than they have been used to. But such are the pressures of high office, that this is much more difficult than it seems. As Foreign Minister, Mr Juppe was open, accessible and well-regarded; as Prime Minister he became more unpopular than any of his predecessors. How to stay open-minded, attentive and responsive: that is the most difficult requirement facing democratic leaders.