Jospin to 'cheer up' French with talk of tax cuts

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The Independent Online

Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, will appear on television on Tuesday night with a "cheer up" message to the French people as they return in glum mood from their long summer holidays. Although cheering up the people is not Mr Jospin's greatest political strength, he faces an abrupt deepening of electoral anxieties as he starts the run-in to the presidential elections next spring.

A slowing economy, an apparent surge in crime and petty violence, the threat of large-scale redundancies in several industries, a wave of violence in Corsica and pre-election jitters and posturing among his coalition partners have thrown Mr Jospin on to the defensive.

Despite the recent allegations of corruption against President Jacques Chirac ­ who will be Mr Jospin's only serious rival in the two-round election in April and May ­ two recent opinion polls have shown the Gaullist (centre-right) head of state sprinting ahead of the Socialist Prime Minister. Another poll published on Monday showed the two rivals, and enforced colleagues in government, running dead even.

At this stage,Mr Jospin will be concerned by immediate political problems and recent French electoral history far more than the polls. No sitting prime minister has been elected president in the 43-year history of the Fifth Republic. Traditionally the French electorate blames the prime minister ­ not the president ­ for its economic and social woes. After benefiting from a booming economy since he took office in June 1997, and after reducing unemployment from 11.8 to 8.8 per cent in four years, Mr Jospin faces an economically hazardous eight months before the first round of the presidential election.

In his appearance on television tonight, he is expected to promise modest tax cuts to re-invigorate what he believes to be a still fundamentally sound economy. He must, however, take care not to feed ammunition to his own left-wing, especially his Communist and Green coalition partners who are already competing to criticise the "over-liberal" policies of the government to which they belong. Centre-right parties, meanwhile, have seized on figures suggesting France has been gripped by a wave of violent crime. The statistics have been loaded, in part, by changes in the justice system, which have altered the way crimes are counted. In all leading indicators of violent crime, France remains a far safer place to live than Britain. None the less, 70 per cent of French people put crime at the top of their anxieties for the rentrée ­ or return to work after the holidays.

Mr Jospin also faces the unpleasant prospect of a series of high-profile, industrial closures and cutbacks in the next few weeks, which will bring new demands for state intervention in industry from the Communists, Greens and the left- wing of his own Socialist party. Most unpredictably, violence has re-erupted in Corsica.

Mr Jospin has staked part of his political reputation on bringing peace to the Mediterranean island by offering the Corsicans a form of limited autonomy.