Britain's plight makes French voters feel better: Julian Nundy in Paris on why the Socialists are in the firing line

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WHEN Francois Mitterrand made his only contribution to the campaign for today's National Assembly elections - a live appearance on a televised question-and-answer session - he was pinned down by a viewer, who complained that the time taken to run a high-speed railway line through his city was

a scandal.

The idea that a voter in a country which already has a formidable high-speed train network, the TGV, should single this out as his main complaint aroused much mirth among expatriates in Paris who hail from a large island across the Channel.

In a restaurant in Cannes last weekend, a 30-year-old conservative political activist looked round at the other tables and said: 'Don't you find the French sad?' It was difficult to concur. He was eating his way through a three-course meal that had been carefully prepared and served with efficiency and discretion.

Raymond Barre, who was the centrist prime minister from 1976 to 1981, said a few months ago: 'The French are intellectuals, and intellectuals are always looking for what it wrong.'

The French vote today for the 577 seats in the National Assembly, from which a new government will be chosen. In constituencies where no clear victor emerges, a run-off vote will be held next Sunday.

For 18 months, opinion polls have consistently predicted a huge win for the conservative coalition of the Gaullist RPR and the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF).

To the casual observer, little is wrong in the state of France. The French eat and drink well, dress well, drive modern cars and their economy is in better shape than most. France has a national pride and unity that sets it apart from Italy, Germany or Spain. It has a sense of culture, and the country's leaders are arguably the most erudite in the world. Yet there is always a sense of something wrong.

By the mid-1970s, after the state had been rocked to its foundations by student riots and strikes in 1968, the argument was that the basic problems raised at that time had not been solved; that the government intervened too much in the economy; that the farmers were unhappy with decisions from Brussels; and that the crunch would come when unemployment reached the psychologically unacceptable figure of one million.

Today, all these arguments remain; in fact, they have been strengthened. Unemployment is just below 3 million, and between the two rounds of voting this week, new figures may well nudge it above that mark and administer the coup de grace to the Socialist government.

The peasants, after 10 years or so of plenty, genuinely fear for their livelihoods. In the 1950s, those who left the land, found jobs at the Renault or Peugeot factories in nearby towns. Now those factories have no work.

To alert the rest of the country to their problems, farmers talk of the 'desertification' of the countryside which is ruining 1,000 years of cultivation.

Fishermen have adopted the violent tactics that used to be the preserve of the farmers. Their destruction of foreign catches, the smashing-up of the fish hall at the Paris market of Rungis and battles with riot police have, despite foreign commentaries to the contrary, shocked the average Frenchman.

France has no inner-city problem, except in Marseilles. Instead, the planners of the 1960s presented the country with an outer-city problem. Suburban housing developments have become concrete ghettoes filled with out-of-work immigrants, where drugs abound, where people lock themselves in at night, and, in some cases, where even the police will not venture. The recession arrived later and so far has been less harsh than in Britain. But it is now making itself felt, particularly in the provinces, and the French are suddenly experiencing a more acute sense of malaise.

Opinion polls indicate that about two-thirds of the voters believe the next government will be unable to do anything to improve their lot; that the problems are structural. What they want is a change of face, especially as the Socialists, the vanguard 12 years ago of a new way of life, have become bogged down in squalid corruption scandals. The French are highly political, but in this election the predominant feature has been one of voter disinterest. It is rarely a subject for conversation among ordinary people.

If, as the polls have predicted, the right obtains 40 per cent of the vote and an overwhelming majority of seats on a turnout of 65 per cent, the new government will be voted into power by only slightly more than 25 per cent of the adult population.

As the French look around at their neighbours, however, there are bright spots. The rise of the extreme right appears to have peaked, and there have never been fears of a French Rostock. Thanks, the politicians say, to a stable franc, France is in more comfortable economic shape than its neighbours. And there is one neighbour they particularly do not envy. When 'cohabitation' - conservative government under the Socialist president - made its debut in 1986, the conservative politicians used to trumpet Thatcher's Britain, with its privatisations and entreprise culture, as an example of what France could do with proper government. No longer. Now all the economic references are to Germany.

In a television debate two weeks ago, Henri Emmanuelli, the Socialist President of the National Assembly, said: 'Tell me about Mr Major.' Bernard Stasi, a respected centrist, replied: 'Mr Major is not my reference.' Mr Emmanuelli repeated the theme. 'Tell me about Great Britain,' he said. Nicolas Sarkozy, deputy secretary-general of the Gaullists, answered: 'I could tell you about Burkina Faso, if you want.'

(Photograph omitted)