After Britain, France swings left

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The Independent Online
The voters of France look likely to turn decisively left tomorrow, plunging the country into five years of shared left-right government and heaping further doubts on the timetable for the European single currency.

According to private and illegally published polls, taken in the last couple of days, the Left will win a comfortable victory in the second round of the French parliamentary elections. This would represent an extraordinary repudiation of the Gaullist President Jacques Chirac, elected for seven years in 1995, and a great personal triumph for the Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, who would become Prime Minister.

It would also mean that France and Britain had left-wing governments simultaneously for the first time in 50 years.

Opinion polls are not always reliable in France. They failed to pick up the ascendancy of the Left before the first round last week. But the new survey, published illegally by the newspaper Le Parisien, yesterday, seems to reflect the national mood of the last few days: confusion and defeatism on the centre-right; surprised confidence on the left; and pessimistic rejection of politics of all kinds across much of the country.

The CSA poll, first published on the Internet by a Swiss newspaper, la Tribune de Geneve, suggests the loose alliance of Socialists, greens and Communists may win by 55 seats. Other private polls make the swing to the left even stronger and suggest that - with the presence of the far right National Front splitting the right-wing vote in many constituencies - the Socialist Party alone may win an outright majority.

A month after Tony Blair's victory in the British election, the political landscape of Europe seems to be tilting sharply to the left. Mr Jospin told his last rally in Lille on Thursday night: "We are on the edge of an event which will stupefy Europe, and at the same time, raise magnificent hopes across Europe after the Labour victory in Britain." In France, at least, it is unlikely that a victory for the likeable rather than charismatic Mr Jospin will be greeted by the kind of popular enthusiasm which greeted the end of 18 years of Conservative rule in Britain. It is only four years since French voters gave the Left their worst hiding in recent history.

A victory for Mr Jospin would, above all, be a stinging, and deliberate, humiliation of President Jacques Chirac, who tried to win tactical advantage by calling the election nine months early, when the Socialists and the National Front were ill-prepared. Instead, it was his own centre-right coalition which could not find an effective campaign message after failing to deliver Chirac's election promise of 1995 to cut unemployment and heal "social fracture".

A victory for the French left would also pile further doubt on the ability of the European Union to deliver the single currency according to the present timetable or with the intended degree of budgetary rigour. The French Socialists campaigned for a softer interpretation of the Maastricht guidelines for the introduction of Economic and Monetary Union (Emu). The Communists oppose the single currency root and branch.

However, the degree of Emu-related civil strife within the German establishment is now such that a change of government in Paris might be secretly welcomed across Europe. It would provide cover for all sides to abandon their entrenched positions and search for some kind of single currency compromise.

Although French Socialists resent comparisons with the culturally reformed New Labour in Britain (they claim to have moved to the centre years ago), there is much in Jospin's programme which sounds like old-time Socialist medicine. He has promised to create 350,000 government jobs for young people and gradually to reduce the working week to 35 hours, without loss of pay.

He is also likely to abandon, or water down, many of the unpopular reforms introduced by the centre-right to shrink the welfare state and public sector in France.

The publication - but not the taking - of opinion polls is banned in France in the week before the first round of an election and in the week between the two rounds. Private polls have always been conducted for political parties, banks and stockbrokers. It has become clear during this campaign that the birth of the Internet has made this kind of elitism and censorship obsolete. The Tribune de Geneve published the results of a survey by the reputable CSA polling organisation on its Internet site during the first round poll moratorium and again on Thursday night.

Le Parisien said yesterday that it was publishing the CSA figures - risking a pounds 5,000 fine - to make them available to all French people in the name of "democracy and freedom of information".

The survey was taken on Wednesday and Thursday, in other words after the announcement that Alain Juppe, the unpopular centre-right Prime minister would stand down, and after President Chirac's televised appeal to the nation to spare him five years of shared government or "co-habitation" with the left. Both these events were intended to galvanise centre-right voters who abstained in droves last Sunday.

Instead, the CSA poll, and other unpublished polls, suggest that it is the Left which has gained momentum from its first round victory and from the evident confusion on the right.

Historical note: the last time that Britain and France had simultaneous left-wing governments was in 1947, when the Communists left the coalition government in Paris. Although the Socialist President Auriol remained in office until 1951, he had little power under the constitution of the old Fourth Republic.