Chirac prepares for his palace revolution

French election/ Gaullists leave nothing to chance
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The Independent Online
"WHAT is the difference between Lionel Jospin and Vichy?" quipped a supporter of Jacques Chirac last Friday. "None. By next week nobody will remember they ever supported them."

That joke testifies to the spirit of confidence that began to pervade the Chirac camp in the middle of last week. As France elects a successor today to President Franois Mitterrand, the Gaullist mayor of Paris and his strategists give every impression that only a catastrophe can deprive him of victory.

However, Mr Chirac's most senior supporters are leaving nothing to chance. "Everything is possible, even the worst," said Philippe Sguin, the chain-smoking Gaullist president of the National Assembly, at a rally in Lille on Thursday.

Alain Jupp, the Foreign Minister and temporary leader of the Gaullist party, the Rally for the Republic (RPR), warned voters not to heed the words of the far-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who said last week he would support neither Mr Chirac nor Mr Jospin. "To abstain or cast a blank ballot is to resign from one's duty," Mr Jupp said.

Even allowing for these notes of caution, the Gaullist leadership clearly senses that Mr Chirac, making his third bid for the presidency in 14 years, will this time finally capture the Elyse. By the end of last week, his campaign managers were talking less about the election than about how he would bring new blood into the French government and launch an era of innovative reform.

If Mr Chirac wins, his first act will be to kick out Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, who was his Gaullist rival in the election's 23 April first round. The new prime minister will be either Mr Sguin or Mr Jupp.

Then Mr Chirac plans a two-front attack on France's biggest economic problems: an unemployment rate of 12.2 per cent and a government budget deficit which, at FFr442bn (£56bn), or 6 per cent of gross domestic product, is double the limit for joining a single European currency. Mr Chirac claims he can introduce an emergency "work initiative" programme that will provide jobs for the long-term unemployed, while cutting the budget deficit so that France can enter a monetary union with Germany and four or five smaller countries in 1999.

It is, however, the European issue that produced one of the few wobbles in what was otherwise a trouble-free week for Mr Chirac. On Thursday afternoon, the Paris foreign exchange markets heard that he had given an interview to La Croix in which he had promised a referendum in France on the coming institutional reforms of the European Union. Aware that the Maastricht Treaty had passed only by a whisker in a French referendum in 1992, the markets instantly marked down the franc.

Mr Jospin seized on Mr Chirac's remark. "By his lightness and irresponsibility, Mr Chirac has put forward a proposal that has disrupted the financial markets," he told a rally in Toulouse, recalling that in the first round Mr Chirac had caused a stir by implying that he might tamper with the independence of France's central bank.

Mr Chirac has, indeed, given several conflicting signals about his commitment to European monetary union. His likely future finance minister, Alain Madelin, was an advocate in 1993 of breaking the franc's link with the German mark, something that would in theory free a French government to bring down unemployment but would put paid to any hopes of a single currency.

It is unlikely that Europe will be the issue that turns today's election. Chirac strategists say that two events last week were much more important. The first was the murder in Paris on Monday of a Moroccan immigrant, Brahim Bouarram, by skinheads apparently linked to Mr Le Pen's National Front.

The killing halted the somewhat unsavoury efforts of the Chirac camp, and to a lesser degree the Jospin camp, to woo the 15 per cent of voters who backed Mr Le Pen in the first round. Instead, it prompted Mr Chirac to move back towards the centre ground, and that, say his supporters, helped him to look more presidential.

The second event was the televised live debate between the two candidates on Tuesday night. For those expecting a classic Chirac faux pas, it was a disappointing spectacle. Though short on policy details, he was dignified and thoughtful throughout, and his reassuring smiles and relaxed behaviour reminded one almost of Ronald Reagan in the US presidential debates of 1980 and 1984.

The debate was, in fact, conducted with such courtesy and was so long (two and a quarter hours, ending at 11.15pm) that it was almost dull. One French comedian said the next day: "Need a cure for insomnia? Here's a video of the presidential debate."

For Mr Chirac, it does not matter. Twice prime minister and the standard- bearer of modern Gaullism, he now stands at the threshold of fulfiling his lifetime's ambition. And to think that it was only last year that, with perhaps more honesty than he is usually given credit for, he told an interviewer that if he lost the election he would "just give everything up and go for a long tour of China".