How a smug political elite got it all wrong

When Alain Juppe stood up in the National Assembly yesterday to defend his government against a vote of censure from the Socialists, he and his fellow Gaullists might well have asked themselves how they had got into this mess. Only six months before, all the cards had seemed stacked in their favour, giving them more room for manoeuvre than any government in France for more than a decade.

Jacques Chirac had won a convincing majority in the presidential election in May and had a seven-year term before him. The Gaullist-led coalition held three-quarters of seats in the National Assembly, and a comfortable majority in the Senate. The next parliamentary elections are not due until 1998.

Mr Juppe was not only seen as one of the best brains of his generation, but appeared so politically and temperamentally close to Mr Chirac that disagreement looked unlikely. For the first time for many years, it seemed, the French constitutional axiom "The President presides and the government governs" had a chance of working. How did it go so wrong?

First, contradictory election promises from Mr Chirac that allowed different sections of the voting public - taxpayers, the unemployed, students, big business - all to believe they would benefit at the same time.

The second failure was Mr Juppe's, deriving from his first government, appointed immediately after Mr Chirac's election. Marked by departmental squabbles, it was dissolved after five months, having squandered a honeymoon period when voters would have expected, if not fully supported, change. The country's financial position looked stronger and the jobs situation better than today, allowing a little more room for manoeuvre. By the time Mr Juppe was reappointed Prime Minister and had named a leaner, slimmer, more like-minded team, public disappointment had already set in.

The constitutional peculiarities of France may also have played a part. The huge majority for the Gaullist-led coalition in parliament reflected the voters' mood in 1993, exasperated with 12 years of Francois Mitterrand. This year's presidential election showed a 53-47 right-left split. The mayoral elections held a month later showed a still more even division, with a considerable bias against established power. The President can call new parliamentary elections, but Mr Chirac had no incentive to do so, because of his party's huge majority. So President, parliament and public are out of kilter.

Constitutional relations between the Prime Minister, the government and parliament also limit the degree to which parliament, in particular, can function as the "voice of the people" in response to the public mood. The Prime Minister is appointed by the President and is, in theory, accountable both to him and to parliament. In practice, however, parliament has hardly any real "checking" role at all.

The fact that ministers may not also be MPs means that the common interest which binds together the governing party in Britain hardly exists. Similarly, voters have no confidence that if they lobby their MPs their views will be passed on to ministers.

The separation of executive and legislature is hardly unique to France. But with presidential and parliamentary elections not coinciding it means ministers and MPs can both be detached from the national mood in a way that would be difficult in Britain.

A third crucial factor is the separate world inhabited by the French elite, which includes ministers and MPs of most parties. Increasingly, they have been educated (at the highly selective grandes ecoles), worked (in well-paid safe jobs in the civil service or state industry) and lived (in prestigious and subsidised accommodation) in conditions different from those of the rest of the population.

The reception for Mr Juppe's social security reforms illustrates the gap between the elite and the rest. When he presented his proposals to the National Assembly three weeks ago, he had prepared the ground impeccably. Potential dissidents on the right were heard and given small concessions, so were difficult lobby groups, and Socialist leaders, including the leader of the biggest, Socialist-dominated trade union, the CFDT.

Within this small group, the proposals were, if not welcomed, accepted as inevitable. So was Mr Juppe's decision to rush the main proposals through parliament by "edict", rather than after a series of parliamentary debates. Mr Juppe sat back, watched the franc rise and believed his troubles were over.

But as news of the reforms filtered through to the rest of the population (Mr Juppe's speech in parliament was not televised), the mood turned hostile and stubborn. No one - not the President, not Mr Juppe, not even the social affairs minister - went on television to tell people what the measures entailed; rumours multiplied. The decision to pass the measures by edict looked like additional defiance of the French public.

Finally, last weekend the Socialists in parliament, like the major trade union leaders a few days before, understood that public anger was forcing their hand. They tabled a censure motion. It was a late and hopeless gesture, which served to illustrate why real opposition in France is on the streets.

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