A little jazz fails to stir Juppe's people

John Lichfield reports from Lyons as party workers try to add sparkle to a lacklustre contest
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Balloons! A jazz band! Garish placards! Carefully choreographed displays of spontaneous enthusiasm!

Somebody had gone to a lot of trouble to give a little American pzazz to the climactic rally of the French government's somnolent election campaign.

It worked, up to a point. The 1,000 or so party workers, bussed and TGV-ed into Lyons from all over the country, gave a convincing show of passion and confidence. Members of the Lyons public were not encouraged to attend; they did not seem disappointed, or even to be aware that the made-for-TV movie set was in town.

No matter. Several senior, centre-right figures, old and new - Raymond Barre (former prime minister), Francois Leotard (leader of the UDF alliance of small centre-right parties), Michel Barnier (Europe minister) - gave effective stem-winding speeches.

Then the Prime Minister stood up. And the evening deflated, like a balloon with a slow puncture.

There is no doubting Alain Juppe's great intelligence. Those who work closely with him insist that he has personal warmth. He may yet prove to be an inspired, political tactician. The decision to have the parliamentary elections nine months early was taken by his long-term boss and political mentor, President Jacques Chirac. But the original idea was Mr Juppe's.

According to the opinion polls the move may pay off in the two rounds of voting, tomorrow and next Sunday, with a narrow victory for the present centre-right majority in the National Assembly. This would give Messrs Chirac and Juppe a further, five-year, clean sweep of the important, French, political institutions: presidency, parliament and government.

This would be five years in which, according to your viewpoint, they could: complete their stuttering reform and reduction of the French welfare state; carry France into Economic and Monetary Union (Emu); weather the worsening budgetary and unemployment crises; or stifle the embarrassing investigations into the dubious (at best) financing of their own party, the neo-Gaullist RPR.

What Mr Juppe is not is a politician capable of inspiring or uniting France. His limp closing speech in Lyons was a suitable epitaph for a limp campaign. The letters RPR stand for Rassemblement pour la Republique, or Rally for the Republic. "Rassembler", or to bring together, is an important political concept in France, which has long suffered from the fragmentation and weakness of its political parties. What this election has notably failed to do is "rassembler" the French people, either to the left or to the right.

The government may yet win its tactical bet on a snap election; the psephological arithmetic is so complex that a win by default for the left should not be ruled out. But in a sense, whatever the result, the election will have been a failure for all parties; at least for all parties who care about the health of French democracy.

The level of interest in the campaign has been low. Almost two thirds of French people have insisted that nothing that was said would affect their lives. The Socialists, written off at the start, recovered, largely through the stolid performance of their leader Lionel Jospin, who was found personally likeable, if politically implausible. The far-right National Front (FN), shaken by internal divisions, may yet ratchet up the 15 per cent it scored in the presidential election two years ago. A poor turnout, and many spoiled papers, are predicted.

Why such cynicism? In part, French democracy is suffering from the same democratic ennui seen in the American and British elections: a sense that politicians can barely influence events, or even if they can, that they barely respond to the prompting of voters; a sense that the real decisions are now taken by markets or lobby groups or at a non-democratic supra- national level, such as the European Union. The abstraction of the issues themselves - the single currency, globalism - tend to fill voters with a kind of pessimistic resignation.

To this global disaffection with democracy, the French have added layers of their own morosite. First, there is disgust at the series of still unfolding political-financial scandals which make the British sleaze debate look like an argument over a taxi-fare. Secondly, there have been too many changes of French government in the past 16 years which have brought too little change, or not the changes promised, and especially no fall in taxes or unemployment (both among the highest in Europe).

At the same time, the French people themselves are, in part, terrified of change and uncertain of what kind of changes are needed.

The election was supposed to bring a "nouveau elan" or new momentum (Jacques Chirac) and to debate a "choice of civilisation" (Alain Juppe). But a proper debate hardly began: on Europe, or on unemployment, on the Chirac-Juppe state-shrinking reforms. Both sides danced around the underlying issue: should France - can France - move peacefully away from its statist, dirigiste history (with all its achievements, comforts, peculiarities and handicaps) to a more enterprising, market-led society (with all its dynamism, injustices, crass uniformities and discomforts). Or is there such a thing as a third way? After the UK election, there was a brief flurry of interest in le blairisme but this deflated when it was realised that the political time-lines of the two countries are irretrievably different. Can you have Blairism without having Thatcherism first?

The left accused the right of wishing to turn France into Ronald Reagan's America or Baroness Thatcher's Britain. The right accused the left of regressing to the Seventies with its plans for state-created jobs for the young, and a mandatory 35-hour working week with no cut in pay. With some reason, the right warned that a win for the left could cause a crisis in the EU.

Mr Jospin, under pressure from his Communist allies, has called for a renegotiation of some of the terms of Emu and a softer interpretation of others. If pursued vigorously in government, this could yet wreck the Emu project. But would it be? If Mr Jospin wins a working majority a week tomorrow, the compulsion for France and Germany to work together in Europe will reassert itself. A fudge will probably be found, not very different from the present plans, convincing some French voters that they were right all along and their vote did not matter much.

In a sense, all the talk of a "new elan" was hypocritical hooey, this was always intended as political smash and grab raid by Juppe and Chirac. They wanted an early, quick campaign, interrupted by three long weekends, when the Socialists and the FN, and the French people, were not yet focused. They have got what they wanted, although the final opinion polls are much closer than they expected.

If they do win, it will be a morally hollow and politically unliberating victory. Messrs Chirac and Juppe will have won more time but little else: no real mandate from the French people and no patience, or understanding, for the tough decisions which lie ahead.