Jospin brings back France's prodigal sons

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The embattled French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, gave his government an emergency transfusion of old blood yesterday, dropping his education and finance ministers and restoring a pair of controversial Socialist chieftains from the Mitterrand years.

Laurent Fabius, 53, once the youngest French prime minister of modern times, returned to government as finance minister after 14 years in the wilderness. Jack Lang, 60, a high-profile culture and education minister in the Eighties and Nineties, went back to education. He immediately abandoned his month-old attempt to become the mayor of Paris. Their predecessors, Christian Sautter and Claude Allÿgre, paid the price for their failed efforts to reform the state system.

Although Mr Jospin insisted that the reform campaign would continue, the new "old" men are expected to pursue a less confrontational approach up to the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2002.

Both Mr Fabius and Mr Lang have quarrelled with Mr Jospin in the past. Both have their own followings within the Socialist Party. Both are associated closely with the doubtful legacy of the late former president François Mitterrand. Their appointments represent a strategic change of direction by Mr Jospin and, in a sense, an admission of failure. The Prime Minister filled his socialist-green-communist cabinet three years ago with young ministers and friends. He excluded all experienced socialists with power bases of their own.

The inclusion of Mr Fabius and Mr Lang suggests that Mr Jospin felt the need to shore up his position before the presidential election by bringing all the different clans of the Socialist Party into government.

He also appointed Michel Sapin - a close friend of the centrist former prime minister Michel Rocard - as junior minister for the civil service and state reform and replaced his culture minister, Catherine Trautmann,with another former minister from the Mitterrand era, Catherine Tasca, 58.

In terms of ideological balance, the new government - which also includes one new junior post each for the Greens and Communists - should be little different from the previous one. Mr Fabius was a Blair-like, moderate and pragmatist in the Eighties when Mr Jospin still believed in the old Socialist religion. This, and personal rivalry, were the causes of their 20-year-old quarrel.

The choice of Mr Fabius will, therefore, be well received by international markets and the business community. He will be seen as the man to continue the cautious, tax-reducing, privatising, broadly pro-enterprise course first pursued by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Mr Jospin's first finance minister. Mr Strauss-Kahn resigned last November to fight allegations of financial wrong-doing.

To lose two finance ministers in five months while the French economy is booming (up to 4 per cent growth expected this year) may seem careless. More significantly, Mr Jospin is the second prime minister in five years to be forced to abandon attempts to tame and streamline the French civil service.

WHEN LAURENT Fabius was appointed prime minister at the age of 38 in 1984, he seemed to be destined to inherit the Mitterrand legacy and dominate the French political left for decades.

In fact, his meteoric career fizzled out, first in defeat in the 1986 parliamentary elections, then amid accusations that he had knowingly allowed Aids-contaminated blood to be used in blood banks. Mr Fabius, now 53, has always denied the accusations and was finally cleared at a special trial last year. His return to government may be theprelude to a return to the prime minister's office, 16 years after he left it.

If Lionel Jospin wins the presidential election in 2002, Mr Fabius would be an obvious candidate to serve as his prime minister, despite a long ideological rivalry between the two men.In the mid-Eighties Mr Fabius was a pro-market reformer, while Mr Jospin still favoured tax-and-spend and heavily regulatory approaches to government.

The return of Jack Lang, 60, to the education ministry is a brilliant stroke of Mr Jospin's new pragmatism. Mr Lang, a great talker, could be the man to soothe the mostly left-voting teachers, brought to near- insurrection by the proposed reforms of the outgoing minister, Claude Allÿgre.

As Culture Minister in the Eighties and Nineties, Mr Lang left his fingerprints on Paris by pursuing grands projets such as the Louvre pyramid and the national library. Last month, he startled the Socialist hierarchy by saying he would run in a "primary" tomorrow as the party's candidate in next year's Paris mayoral election. Mr Lang's post as Education Minister instantly ends a party quarrel by taking him out of that race.

Mr Lang has had many differences with Jospin, but loyally supported him for three years. The prime minister is said to regard him as a lightweight and a PR man, rather than a politician. This could be precisely what is needed to calm the teachers. Cometh the man, cometh the hour.