Jospin and Chirac suffer as mood darkens in France

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The Independent Online

The French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, has suffered the steepest month-on-month collapse in opinion poll ratings recorded in France, partly because of his uncertain handling of last week's oil crisis.

The French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, has suffered the steepest month-on-month collapse in opinion poll ratings recorded in France, partly because of his uncertain handling of last week's oil crisis.

One poll, taken at the height of the crisis last Thursday and Friday, showed a drop of 20 percentage points in the Socialist Prime Minister's approval rating, compared with early August. Another showed an 18- point fall. That would normally be splendid news for his political rival and unwilling partner in divided government, President Jacques Chirac, but the head of state has serious problems of his own.

Mr Chirac's popularity also plummeted by 9 points over the month to 57 per cent. There is a drum-beat of press speculation about his health. He has taken a public buffeting after revelations in Paris Match that he spent a three-week August holiday in a £2,000-a-night hotel suite in Mauritius, which he later said he paid for.

The dive in Mr Jospin's ratings - after beating all popularity records for a prime minister in the past three years - cannot be attributed to last week's oil blockade alone. He has had other difficulties, such as the controversy surrounding his plan for limited autonomy for Corsica, which provoked the resignation of his popular interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevénement. It also reflects a darkening of the public and political mood in France.

Despite an economic boom in the past three years, despite a steep fall in unemployment, pollsters say the French public is growing increasingly impatient with high taxes and the stagnation of take-home pay.

The oil protests by hauliers, farmers and others disrupted life in provincial France but were supported by 88 per cent of the population. Mr Jospin has suffered, not because he gave in to the protests, but because he was taken by surprise, acted uncertainly at first and - most of all - because the campaign crystallised a wider sense of public anger that the economic boom has failed to trickle down to wallets and purses.

Under the present French constitution, prime ministers are usually battered by the problems of everyday life, and presidents float on a cloud of vague popularity and respect for their office. Since Mr Jospin and Mr Chirac were placed in unwilling tandem by the centre-left victory in parliamentary elections in 1997, both have enjoyed unprecedented levels of popularity. Now both seem to be irritating the public at the same time.

President Chirac has been criticised by his supporters on the centre-right after almost disappearing from the political radar screen since July.

And the revelations about his holiday undercut his promise to reduce the pomposity of the presidency after the Mitterrand years.

Mr Chirac returned from his trip looking bloated and speaking with a croaky voice. Presidential aides blame his affection for beer and rich food. Rumours are circulating - encouraged by the Socialists - that the President is seriously ill. There is not a scrap of evidence that this is true but the rumours and press reports are sustained by the memory that two previous presidents - Georges Pompidou and François Mitterrand - covered up grave illnesses.

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