Jospin borrows Blair's agenda for presidency

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The Independent Online

Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, promised yesterday to cut unemployment by almost half in the next five years if he is elected President.

In a cautious, somewhat colourless prospectus – borrowing some ideas and language from Tony Blair – the Socialist leader promised that he would create an "active, secure, just, modern and strong" France. There was none of the red-blooded socialism with which François Mitterrand won the presidency in 1981. There was not even much of the social engineering – such as the 35-hour working week – that helped Mr Jospin to become Prime Minister in 1997. This was a prospectus without a Big Idea, a programme for a managerial president, for a safe pair of hands, rather than someone who would take France in a new direction.

With Mr Jospin narrowly ahead in the polls, the intention appeared to be to please, or not offend, the squabbling "modern" and "traditional" factions of the left, while positioning Mr Jospin as a man the French electorate can trust.

An earlier pledge by his main rival, the incumbent President Jacques Chirac, to cut income tax by one-third had been met with whistles of derision and disbelief, even on the right.

Mr Jospin undertook in his 40-page pamphlet, Je m'engage (I promise), to reduce the number of unemployed by 900,000 by the year 2007. He also promised an annual rate of economic growth of 3 per cent.

These amounted to promises to repeat almost exactly his solid economic performance of the past five years, without much changing government policy. Property taxes would be reduced by half; a system of pay-as-you-earn for income tax would be introduced; there would be a life-time guarantee of retraining for anyone who lost their job; and a "contract" guaranteeing work for the long-time unemployed.

Mr Jospin, echoing Mr Blair, also promised that there would be no homeless by 2007 and to find ways of being tough on crime as well as les causes du crime.

On the future of the European Union, Mr Jospin called – as he did last year – for a single "economic government" for countries belonging to the Euro. Otherwise, he said, there should be a "federation of nation states" that would leave most national powers intact.

The Jospin pamphlet was immediately attacked by Mr Chirac's camp as "tired, old and worn out by power". These were the words used by Mr Jospin last week to describe the rather spiritless, early campaign of President Chirac.

Mr Jospin later claimed that those words were off the record. They were certainly ill-advised. Mr Chirac has since sprung to life and halted a long slide in the opinion polls.

Both men have lost popularity since they formally entered the race, but they remain the favourites to top the poll on 21 April and go forward to the, two-candidate run-off on 5 May.

Most of Mr Jospin's energy has gone into portraying Mr Chirac as an unreliable and shop-worn candidate of broken promises. This strategy may be successful in the centre-ground but risks alienating the romantic and hard left votes that the Prime Minister needs to triumph in the second round.

Alarm bells have begun to ring in the Jospin camp at the rise in the opinion polls of the perennial Trotskyist candidate, Arlette Laguiller, who threatens to seize third place in the first-round poll.

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