Jospin shoulders task of restoring fortunes of the left

French Socialists consoled themselves yesterday with the thought that no matter how easily Jacques Chirac won the presidency, things can only get better for the left from now on.

"It was a defeat that gives hope for the future," said Laurent Fabius, the former Socialist prime minister.

This diagnosis was based on the fact that Lionel Jospin ran a creditable campaign that brought him 47.4 per cent of the vote, more than the left had dared hoped for only two months ago. Mr Jospin came top in the first round on 23 April, reviving morale in the Socialist camp and establishing himself as the natural leader of the post-Mitterrand French left.

The fortunes of the left have, however, rarely been this low. Politicians and parties of the right now control the Presidency, the National Assembly, the Senate (upper house of Parliament) the city of Paris and all but one of France's regions.

Three times in the past two years the left has gone down to defeat - in the parliamentary and European Parliament election landslides of l993 and 1994, and now in Sunday's presidential election.

The left is unlikely to have a chance to recapture the Elyse before 2002, when Mr Chirac's term is due to expire, and even the next parliamentary elections need not be held until 1998.

At national level, the French Socialist Party is in a weaker position than any of its sister parties in major Western democracies.

At a local level, the first chance for Mr Jospin to restore the left's fortunes will come in municipal elections next month.

But much attention in these elections will focus on the performance of the National Front, anxious to capture a large city such as Toulon in the south for the first time, and in any case there is no adequate substitute for holding the reins of national power in Paris.

Psychologically, however, the left seems refreshed by its experience of the presidential election. With Franois Mitterrand having served two full seven-year terms, the Socialists knew they were vulnerable to the argument that another seven years of socialism at the Elyse would be too much.

Then Jacques Delors, the former European Commission president, announced he would not run for the presidency, depriving the left of the candidate thought to represent its best chance of winning. In these circumstances Mr Jospin did well not only to beat Mr Chirac and Edouard Balladur in the first round but score 47.4 per cent in the second round. This figure was about 7 per cent above the combined total of leftist votes in the first.

"You have to look at realities," Mr Jospin said on Sunday. "Three things were against us: the end of a historical cycle for the left, a cycle which is ending in a shift of the electorate very favourable to the right and a campaign that was too short for voters to get to know me as well as they knew Mr Chirac."

Apart from mounting a genuine challenge to Mr Chirac, Mr Jospin's main achievement was to start the process of making a decisive break with socialism as practiced by Mr Mitterrand.

This was not really a matter of moving the Socialist Party to a different position on the ideological spectrum, but of injecting it with some of its old idealism and humanity.

Michel Rocard, another former Socialist prime minister, recently criticised Mr Mitterrand for saddling the party with "an institutional utilitarian or even cynical vision of power".

Corruption scandals and misuse of patronage were eating away at the Socialist Party's legitimacy in Mr Mitterrand's final years and many activists considered the outgoing President out of touch with modern French society and seemingly indifferent to his party's fate.

Mr Jospin's achievement has been to show that he can restore the faith of at least some Frenchmen in the honesty and respectability of the Socialist Party. He has by no means convinced the majority, however, and a lot of hard work lies ahead.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Jospin will retain the commitments to halting France's privatisation programme and reducing the working week from 39 to 37 hours that he put forward in the campaign. There is talk in the left's ranks of devising a new programme of "modern social democracy" to broaden its electoral appeal.

But the Socialist Party has not been the party of the deepest red for many years. Mr Mitterrand's experiments with whole-hearted socialism ended in the early 1980s.

What is more important for the Socialists is to bring to the fore a new generation of leaders who are untainted by any close association with Mitterrandism. It is on Mr Jospin's shoulders that this task now rests.