Chirac refuses to let sleeping Euro dogs lie

The French parliamentary elections are supposed to be all about Europe. But Europe is a dog which has stubbornly refused to bark during the campaign.

In the past couple of days, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Juppe have gone out of their way to try to wake the ungrateful beast. They have warned that a victory for the left, in the two rounds of voting over the next two Sundays, will leave France with a weak and muddled position in the European Union, especially on the single currency.

President Chirac, who is theoretically uninvolved in the campaign, made his comments, flanked by French and European flags, during a visit by Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany. France would only be able to defend its European interests if it "spoke with one voice" he said, not with a right-wing President (himself) and a left-of-centre parliamentary majority and government.

Mr Juppe followed up with a prediction that a victory by the French left would plunge the EU into an "economic and financial crisis". The Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, has said that, as prime minister, he would try to soften some of the budgetary and economic conditions for the single currency, as now rigorously interpreted by the Germans, French and others.

Judging by the lack of interest in EU issues around the country, the belated warnings suggest a certain anxiety, even desperation, in the government camp. Although the last publishable polls forecast that the present centre- right coalition will win narrowly in the second round on 1 June, the advantage is fragile and based on uncertain arithmetic.

President Chirac's decision to call the election nine months early was intended to be a smash-and-grab raid which gave the government, led by his Gaullist party, a relatively easy victory. It may still turn out to have been an inspired gamble but, three days before the first round, the governing camp is clearly edgy.

Le Monde yesterday reported a private conversation in which the education minister, Francois Bayrou, leader of Force Democrate, one of the centrist parties in the governing coalition, said: "For the last three days, I've had a bad feeling about this campaign. I don't know why, but I have a bad feeling."

Five weeks ago President Chirac gave Europe, and the need to take difficult decisions on the single currency, as one of his principal reasons for calling an early poll. With public opinion in France broadly pro-Emu, the President hoped the coming European challenges would help to marshal a majority behind the existing, unpopular government.

In reality, neither Mr Juppe, nor Mr Jospin, has been confident enough of his European ground to make European monetary union (Emu) a central part of his campaign. The voters, if interested in the election at all, have focused on purely national issues, such as unemployment, and the government's state-dismantling reforms, without making the connections with European policy. Only the political extremes - the National Front on the right and the Communists on the left - have made Emu, and their virulent opposition to it, an important part of their platforms.

Even the belated interventions by President Chirac and Mr Juppe seemed unlikely to start a European debate as such. Mr Jospin chose to see their remarks as an attack on his ability, if he wins, to operate in "co-habitation" with President Chirac. He said France had managed to speak with "one voice" on EU affairs during previous "co-habitations" in 1986-88 and 1993-95 between a Socialist president and a centre-right government. It would do so again, with the political colours reversed, he said.

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