Chirac gives new government five weeks to cut taxes and crime  

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The Independent Online

A Government that may only last five weeks is a government in a hurry. A flurry of rapid action to cut taxes and reduce crime was promised by the new French centre-right government after its first cabinet meeting yesterday.

President Jacques Chirac, presiding over a cabinet of his own allies for the first time in five years, demanded proposals "within weeks" to cut income tax by 5 per cent, and promised a draft law within 10 days on measures to combat crime.

Mr Chirac, re-elected by a landslide of right and left-wing votes on Sunday, told his new Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and his other ministers that they must be a "crusading" government.

Mr Raffarin, a marketing and communications specialist who has never held high office before, said the French people wanted "action, authority and unity" but also "dialogue, proximity, solidarity and modesty".

His words, and the promise of rapid action by his government, are intended to woo the disenchanted electors who pushed France into political crisis last month by voting in large numbers for the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election.

Although Mr Le Pen was crushed by President Chirac by a four-to-one majority in the second round on Sunday, his National Front party holds the key to the parliamentary elections that follow next month.

By splitting the right-wing vote in scores of constituencies, the National Front could allow the French left – humiliated by the elimination of the Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of the presidential election – to make a startling comeback by winning the legislative elections on 9 and 16 June.

If this happens, Mr Raffarin's government would disappear after only five weeks and President Chirac would be forced to "cohabit", to share power with a left-wing prime minister as he has for the past five years. A survey in the newspaper Le Monde earlier this week calculated that, if the left and right voting patterns in the second round of the presidential election were to repeated next month, there would be a narrow majority of Socialists, Communists and Greens in the new national assembly.

The income-tax reduction promised yesterday, to take immediate effect, was part of Mr Chirac's presidential election platform. He has promised to cut income tax by 30 per cent over five years and also to reduce social charges on business, and VAT on restaurant meals and records. How such tax cuts can be squared with France's promise to the European Union to curb its budget deficit – now running at 1.9 per cent of GDP – is unclear.

There is no doubt that the promise of tax cuts will be welcome. The American magazine Forbes Global calculates in its next edition, to be published on Monday, that the French suffer more "fiscal pain" than any other developed nation. The magazine puts the overall tax burden in France at 181.2 points, compared with an international average of 100 points.

Much will depend in the next few weeks on which of the two potential governments, centre-right or centre-left, does most to keep their warring factions and mutually hating personalities in order.

Attempts by Mr Chirac to ensure that there was only one centre-right candidate in each constituency in the first round of the parliamentary elections suffered a blow yesterday.

Françoise de Panafieu, a member of Mr Chirac's RPR party and mayor of the 17th arrondissement in Paris, announced that she would insist on standing for parliament in that constituency next month, even though it had been allocated to the sitting MP, Bernard Pons, a long-standing ally of Mr Chirac. This could result in a flood of similar rebellions in other areas.