French right ready for an EC punch-up

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The Independent Online
The French government widely expected to be elected by the end of the month is already shaping up to be a brawling, bad- tempered bunch that will pick fights with its EC partners and demand concessions from the United States that could start a protectionist chain-reaction.

The Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) and their centre- right allies, the Union for French Democracy (UDF), are expected to sweep the polls in 10 days on a platform that has as much to do with chauvinistic anger at the outside world - especially the EC - as with differences with the Socialist government of the last 12 years.

In France the election campaign is proving to be a damp squib, with the opinion polls concluding that the outcome is a foregone conclusion: that the Socialists will be swept from power while the right begins a second period of cohabitation under President Francois Mitterrand. France's EC partners are wondering whether what they are hearing from the RPR-UDF coalition is mere electioneering or signals a radical shift of policy.

Germany has already reacted forcefully to the French protectionist warnings, with the Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, bluntly stating that they are unacceptable and that the two countries are starting to diverge.

Nervousness is widespread across the EC, where unemployment is at 11 per cent and there are 17 million on the dole. The arrival of a possibly hostile French government, already taking swipes at its neighbours, could exacerbate the jumpiness and prompt civil unrest.

French politicians are understandably concerned about their own 3 million chomeurs - for the most part (53 per cent) women, the young (23 per cent) and untold numbers of immigrants. But the confrontational approach of the Gaullists in particular, combined with further currency turmoil and speculative attacks on EC currencies, could bring on a political crisis in the Community, European diplomats feel.

Most French politicians are behind the 'strong franc' policy of keeping parity with the Deutschmark, but there are a few discordant voices on the right who have raised serious doubts about the European Monetary System and the Maastricht process, notably Philippe Seguin and Charles Pasqua. Their appearance in a key ministry like European Affairs or Finance when the new government is installed would really set the alarm bells ringing.

Le Monde newspaper predicts a difficult period of cohabitation, until the 1995 presidential elections, 'that could put Europe itself in danger' by threatening the Franco-German alliance which binds the Community together.

The same fury that drives France's farmers and fishermen to riot when they are unable to sell their produce at a profit is evident in the speeches and interviews given by RPR officials who are expected to dominate the next administration. What makes it all the more disquieting, however, is that aside from unemployment, the French economy is in fairly good shape. Apart from a large public sector (18 per cent of the economy, compared to 5 per cent in Britain) which is set for more privatisation, the country is doing well. Inflation has been curbed and stands at 2 per cent, and economic growth is still twice the rate of the EC as a whole.

(Photograph omitted)