Jospin buoyed up by the economic tide

French Prime Minister enjoys greater popularity in his country than with his political allies, writes John Lichfield in Paris
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The Independent Online
Everything is going right for Lionel Jospin; except for those things which are beginning to go wrong.

The French Prime Minister travels to Bonn today to give what amounts to a political and economic progress report to Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Since their last, difficult tete-a-tete in Poitiers in June, Mr Jospin's position has been greatly strengthened, partly through luck, partly through skill.

The French economy is picking up; the markets have swallowed, for now, the promise that France will almost make the entry guidelines for monetary union this year; the franc remains usefully weak but not in free-fall; inflation barely exists; exports are booming; opinion polls are encouraging; the right-wing opposition is mostly engaged in savaging itself. For once, the Franco-German summit may be more pre-occupied with German political and economic problems than French ones.

But Mr Jospin faces a somewhat rougher ride when he goes on to the "summer university" of his own Socialist party in La Rochelle at the weekend. After three months of grace, the radical wing of the party, and Mr Jospin's Communist and Green coalition partners, are beginning to growl at his methodical and centrist approach to government.

The immediate cause of the unrest is not economic. The left has reluctantly accepted that Maastricht will take precedence over most of the economic ideas on which the Socialists campaigned successfully in May. There is to be no large increase in state-spending; the plan to reduce the working week to 35 hours will probably be put off for three years; the promise of 700,000 state-paid or subsidised jobs for the young will be phased in gradually; there will be no miraculous cure for unemployment. Everything will be mortgaged to Maastricht and an upturn in growth (now forecast to reach 3 per cent next year).

In return, parts of the left and the Greens had hoped for some form of emotionally-satisfying, symbolic left-ward shift in cost-free social policy, especially on immigration. Mr Jospin let it be known this week, however, that he would introduce only cosmetic changes to the restrictions on immigration, and the tougher controls on illegal immigration, introduced by successive right-wing governments.

This has been greeted as a betrayal. Hundreds of thousands of left-leaning French people, led by prominent intellectuals, demonstrated against the previous government's toughening of the laws in March. Mr Jospin himself (reluctantly) joined one of the demonstrations. The Socialist programme in the May election promised to abolish all the laws and start from scratch. In fact, the proposals put forward by the interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, accepted the thrust of a judicial inquiry and suggested that the existing laws be softened in places but mostly preserved. The Greens warned yesterday that the proposals "would cause a serious crisis of confidence, within the governing majority, and between this majority and its electors". A Socialist deputy, Yann Galut, warned that Mr Jospin would have enormous difficulties getting the proposals through the National Assembly.

The issue is a dangerous one for Mr Jospin. It divides the Socialists down one of their most explosive fault lines: between the mostly middle- class "moral" left on the one hand and the more working class "economic" left on the other. Mr Chevenement, head of a populist, Socialist splinter party, is one of the fiercest opponents of Maastricht but close to white, working-class opinion on immigration. His silence on the pro-EMU approach of the Jospin administration may depend partly on being given his own way on immigration policy.

What is more surprising is that Mr Jospin's retreat from campaign promises across a broad front has not damaged his popularity in the country. It was precisely the accusation that they had campaigned on one set of policies, and governed with others, which mortally damaged the previous administration of Alain Juppe. Mr Jospin is getting away with it, so far.

As Le Figaro said yesterday, the Prime Minister has perfected the art of "walking backwards on tip-toes". How to explain this paradox? Partly, it seems, the French instinctively like and trust the school-masterly Mr Jospin, where they instinctively disliked and distrusted the bureaucratic Mr Juppe. But the sense of a rising economic tide may also be buoying up Mr Jospin's popularity.