Chirac's year of living dangerously

The French are weighing their President's record. Mary Dejevsky reports from Paris

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.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Travel
travelWhy Japan's love hotels are thriving through an economic downturn
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Life and Style
Alexander McQueen A/W 2014
fashionPolitics aside, tartan is on-trend again this season
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Sport
Joel jumps over the board...and into a giant hole
footballFrom joy to despair in a matter of seconds
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week