Chirac's year of living dangerously

The French are weighing their President's record. Mary Dejevsky reports from Paris
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The Independent Online
The Elysee is not making a big fuss; Jacques Chirac himself has hardly mentioned the subject, but the first anniversary of his election as President of France is almost upon us, and France's politicians, pollsters and commentators are busy drawing up the balance sheet.

Mr Chirac's own Gaullist (RPR) party is feeling reasonably content, if only to be back in power, and is holding a celebratory national council meeting in Paris on Sunday. The Gaullists' coalition partners, the UDF, have just elected a new leader and have troubles enough without worrying unduly about a president with six more years of his term to run. The de facto opposition leader and defeated presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin, snipes from the sidelines about Mr Chirac's broken election promises, but has produced no convincing alternative platform.

On the streets, the view is less divided along party lines and more uniform, but it contains one big and abiding contradiction. One year on, people tend to like Mr Chirac, but they are disappointed with what he has actually done.

The polling organisation BVA, for the magazine Paris Match, found that a large majority of those polled (83 per cent) said they found Mr Chirac "dynamic", slightly fewer found him "nice" (76 per cent) and "close to the people" (68 per cent). However, 66 per cent said that on economic and social policy things had gone "worse than expected".

These findings mask a bumpy ride for the President. Over the summer and autumn, with the decision taken to conduct a last series of nuclear tests, an Algerian-inspired fundamentalist bombing campaign in progress, and an upsurge of labour unrest in gestation, Mr Chirac's popularity slumped. His recent return above 50 per cent has been a feat, not least because his first year has delivered in many instances the precise opposite of what he promised during the election campaign.

The priorities of his election campaign - and the points on which voters, especially younger voters, are thought to have elected him - were his pledges to reduce unemployment, narrow what were seen as growing social divisions and reduce taxes. He also promised a referendum on education reform.

In fact, unemployment increased for 11 months, before registering a very small 4,000 fall in March; high-profile and expensive job-creation schemes are treated with growing public scepticism. And a promised bill to combat "social exclusion" has not materialised.

Taxes have been raised: 2 per cent went on value added tax in August; a special tax of 0.5 per cent on total income was introduced in February to help pay off the social security debt. The bane of employers lives - their contribution to employees' national insurance and health costs - has not been reduced. A promised tax reform was postponed and even though Mr Chirac amended the constitution last summer to make such a reform possible, the referendum on education seems further away than ever.

Instead, Mr Chirac set about abolishing conscription - a decision that may in time become a hallmark of his presidency but which has thoroughly divided French opinion.

Aside from the decision on conscription, the real achievements of Mr Chirac's first year are international. While the decision to resume nuclear testing was a huge - and unanticipated - diplomatic liability, it sent the message that France was back on the international stage, as awkward and Paris-centred as ever.

Mr Chirac's unilateral demarche on Bosnia after the "humiliation" of French soldiers, and on Lebanon after a personal diplomatic initiative risked ridicule, eschewed European team-playing and irritated Washington. Probably, though, both moves made a difference.

In Europe, Mr Chirac managed to opt out of much of the Schengen agreement on open European borders without being dubbed anti-European. He brought France back into the leading structures of Nato without being condemned for betraying Gaullism.

Further afield, he worked to restore "special relations" with the Francophone world and other traditional areas of French influence.

Altogether, Jacques Chirac emerges from his first year as a very old- fashioned sort of French president: an embodiment of French interests and style abroad; an aspiring advocate for "the people" at home.

Silent during the labour unrest of the winter, he did not publicly support the government's tough line and he kept channels open to the unions and strikers. A recent attack on hypermarkets as the scourge of French towns was applauded because all French shoppers imagine themselves patronising small shops - even as they set off to the hypermarket.

Other concerns - like balancing the budget, meeting the Maastricht criteria, making the welfare system solvent - are left increasingly to the government. Mr Chirac can then urge from the sidelines: don't raise taxes, don't ration healthcare, don't let small traders go out of business.

His one looming problem is that if his own popularity continues to be bought at the cost of his government's unpopularity, the right could lose its parliamentary majority in two years' time - and with it the right to govern.