Chirac set to gamble on early French elections

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The Independent Online
President Jacques Chirac is today expected to dissolve the French parliament and call early elections, ostensibly to clear the ground for a final push into the European single currency.

In reality, Emu provides the cover for several less noble, more tactical arguments, which have overcome the president's doubts and persuaded him to call the poll eight months early, probably at the start of June.

Although Mr Chirac's centre-right supporters have an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, the two-round election is likely to be closely fought. Recent opinion polls are divided, some forecasting a narrow victory for the government, others a hung parliament with the Socialists, Communists and Greens forming the largest block.

The president was officially said to be spending the week-end "in reflection", after weeks of badgering for an early poll by his political allies, led by the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe. According to the weekend edition of Le Monde, citing senior government sources, the decision is made. Mr Chirac will make the announcement on television tonight.

This clearly represents a gamble. The mood of the country remains truculent, even morose. Unemployment is stubbornly high. The president's instinct was to wait until the constitutional deadline next March. But Mr Juppe and others argued that the electoral climate would get worse, not better, as the year wore on. The first signs of green shoots in the French economy might wither, forcing further spending cuts to bring France within the guidelines for Emu membership. Several legal investigations of Chirac and Juppe allies, including two senior ministers, are likely to come to an embarrassing head before the summer.

What is more, Mr Juppe argued, an early poll would catch the opposition parties months short of battle-readiness. The Socialists, led by Lionel Jospin, have failed to produce a coherent, alternative programme to the state-shrinking reforms proposed and unevenly carried through by the government. Tony Blair's apparent success in Britain in repackaging the Labour Party has provoked criticism within the French left of Mr Jospin's failure to give the Socialists a new post-Mitterrand mission.

Equally, an early poll is unlikely to suit the far-right National Front, which lacks the resources to accelerate preparations for a June election.

According to the polls, the NF will receive only around 13 per cent support nationwide, but surveys have tended to undercount likely far-right votes in the past. A performance in the 15 to 17 per cent range would put the NF into the second round in more than 100 constituencies, provoking awkward three-cornered fights with the left and centre right which would make the overall result difficult to predict.

When he makes his nationwide broadcast, President Chirac will ignore all these messy tactical considerations. He will say that he is dissolving parliament to ensure that France is strong and unified for the single greatest historical and constitutional challenge facing the country, the decisions on the starting line-up for the European single currency next spring.

There is some truth in this presentation. An election next March would have fallen in the middle of the final Emu negotiations. But France already voted, narrowly, in favour of the Maastricht treaty and Emu in 1993. The constitutional and European argument for an early election is weak and could yet rebound against the president.

By fighting the election on France's European destiny, Mr Chirac and Mr Juppe hope to harness the generally positive French feelings about Emu in their own cause. But the mood of the country remains skittish and pessimistic. Doubts about Emu are growing on both the left and right. There is a risk that the inflammatory anti-Emu arguments presented by the FN, the Communist and others - that the single currency is a double attack on sovereignty and the welfare state - will ignite in the middle ground of politics.

The governing centre-right coalition faces awkward decisions, therefore, on its own election programme. If it calls for further state-shrinking and spending cuts, it could be in difficulty. Some would like to see a more coherent anti-state, lower-tax, growth-boosting programme, on the British and US models. But allegiance to statist approaches, and abhorrence of Anglo-Saxon liberalism, remains strong.

Mr Chirac may be calling an early election for tactical reasons; but the stage is set for what could be a fascinating battle for the political soul of France.