French politics is for oldies, mon vieux

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Of all the many insults and criticisms which Lionel Jospin might have hurled at Jacques Chirac last week, "oldie" was the least sensible.

The President of the Republic is, it is true, 69 years old. He has been a player in French politics for 35 years (since Harold Wilson was prime minister in Britain). Fighting his fourth presidential election in 21 years, he has started to look his age. His stride is less certain; his legs and hands tend to shake when he is under pressure.

The Socialist Prime Minister's insult – "tired, old, worn out by power" – had the unfortunate effect – for him – of sending the centre-right President into electoral overdrive. With five weeks remaining to the first round of the presidential election, Mr Chirac started stomping the campaign trail like a much younger man.

But this was not the only reason why the crack was ill-chosen. France seems to prefer old men, and women, in politics. Since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, China and France are, arguably, the only gerontocracies left on earth.

Among the EU leaders gathered for the summit in Barcelona this weekend, the two oldest – and the only ones over 60 – came from France, Mr Chirac and Mr Jospin.

Of the five leading candidates for the first round of the French election on 21 April, every single one is over 60. They are, in current order of opinion poll strength, Mr Jospin, Socialist, aged 64; Mr Chirac, Gaullist, 69; Jean-Pierre Chevènement, leftist sovereigntist, 63; Jean-Marie Le Pen, National Front (far right), 73; and Arlette Laguiller, Trotskyist, 61.

So much for the "bébé boom" generation, which has seized power in almost every other democracy on earth. Almost all the faces in a prospective 17-strong field are old faces. Even relative newcomers, like the two would-be successors to Mr Chirac, Alain Madelin and François Bayrou, are 53 and 50.

French politicians and political commentators spent much of the week trying to explain this conundrum. Jean-Francois Sirinelli, professor of contemporary history at the elite Parisian political college, Sciences-Po, suggests that it is partly a result of the constitution of the Fifth Republic, with its seven-year presidential terms and its division of power between the president and prime minister. To become prime minister (or chancellor) is the pinnacle of power in most European countries. It is only the final base camp for the assault on the summit in France.

The presidential term has now been reduced to five years, which may or may not give youth a chance in the future. Some suggest the longevity of French politicians is also a product of the weak and fractured party system in France. Where strong parties do exist they tend to be the creation and the personal fiefdom of one man. The RPR was created as a vehicle for Jacques Chirac in 1976, and he has since ruthlessly removed anyone else who dreamed of taking the wheel. The Socialist Party was created and dominated for 30 years by the late Francois Mitterrand (re-elected in 1988, aged 72).

In France, politicians do not emerge through the parliamentary system, or regional politics, as they do in other EU countries. They create their own power bases from the top down, and hold on to them whether the electorate would like to see new faces or not.

This may also explain why French politics sometimes appear to be stuck in a 1970s time warp. New ideas tend to come with new heads.