Red, white and the blues as France goes to the polls

Britain's election result lifted the national mood, suggests John Lichfield, but today's vote will plunge France into an even deeper depression
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Too many jobless. Too many taxes. Too much state. Too few entrepreneurs. Too much corruption. Too many elections. Too little democracy. Too few new faces. Too many parties. Too few ideas. Too many candidates. Too few voters.

The election result in Britain succeeded in lifting the national mood (temporarily at any rate.) Today's parliamentary election in France - ending the first round of a bizarre, sullen and passionless campaign - seems likely to plunge the nation into an even deeper depression.

There is still life at the other end of the Channel Tunnel. French exports are booming. French GNP per head is well ahead of ours; the gap has increased, not narrowed, since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. The franc is stable and no longer overvalued. Inflation is tiny. French public services, from transport to health, are costly but excellent.

France has problems, no doubt, but the extent of the national morosite and malaise can be puzzling, and all the more dangerous for that. Whatever the result of the election, today and next Sunday, France will insist on feeling cheated. What the campaign has revealed is a rooted pessimism and cynicism, not necessarily about the future of France, but with the immobile and sterile state of French politics and political institutions.

A year to 18 months ago it was a commonplace that France was in a pre- revolutionary mood. The government was the second least popular in modern history. Everyone seemed to be on the streets, from teachers to truck drivers, protesting about some aspect of Prime Minister Alain Juppe's modest, state-shrinking reforms.

And yet today, and in the second round next Sunday, France seems likely to re-elect the government it professes to hate. This is not certain; the arithmetic over the two rounds is complex. But the opinion polls published, illegally, in the last couple of days continue to point to a continuing centre-right majority in the National Assembly, albeit shrunk from 351 seats to around 50.

There is a further paradox. This will be the first time in nearly 20 years, and five elections, that a French parliamentary majority has not been overturned. The government (separate from the presidency, remember) changed hands in 1981, 1986, 1988 and 1993. France has a habit of throwing out the rascals whenever it can and yet still complaining about immobilism. This time its complaints are more strident than ever, but it will probably not throw the rascals out.

Why not? Partly, there is a conviction, based on some experience, that they are all rascals and they all do much the same thing once in government. The Socialists, the leading party on the left, are still distrusted, even despised, by some for the political gyrations and the corruption of the Mitterrand years.

French economic and social policy has remained much the same through leftish and different rightish governments for the last six years: some privatisation and some retrenchment of benefits, but no real reduction in the large (54 per cent) state hold on the economy. Unemployment, now approaching 3.5 million, has continued to grow.

It is this promiscuity - the two main political families screaming at each other and then governing with a blend of each other's programmes - which has confused and disgusted the electorate. French voters of both left and right say that politics has become a ball for the Paris elites to which the population is not invited. Once again, over the past five weeks, neither of the main political families has dared to engage the public in a real debate, for fear of setting off damaging quarrels - over Europe, over economic policy - in their own ranks. In truth, voters outside the Paris chattering classes have shown little sign of wanting much of a deeper conversation on the nation's future.

The more honest political leaders have admitted in private that, just as in the United States, the campaign and the real world are scripts from two different movies. The likeable Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, is aware that his promised renegotiation of EMU is a non-starter. "I just put my head down in the handlebars and don't think about the road ahead," he was overheard to say. This may be the right way to win the Tour de France - but to govern the country?

There is another reason why a widely disliked government, and a deeply disliked Prime Minister, may win the election: a functional reason. Today, barely more than one in four of eligible French voters is likely to cast ballots for the governing coalition, consisting of the RPR and the small centre-right parties grouped in the UDF. The centre-right is expected to take less than 40 per cent of the vote on a forecast 65-67 per cent turnout, one of the lowest ever. The Socialists, Communists and Greens should score a few votes less, maybe a few more.

But at the second round next week, if all goes according to form, the votes of eliminated National Front candidates will transfer mostly to the centre-right, giving the government a comfortable majority. The great unknown is how many NF candidates survive into the second round and keep their votes to themselves. To qualify, they need to come first or second or score 12.5 per cent of the registered voters in their constituency. The lower the turn-out the harder it will be for the NF candidates to reach this target.

All this is complex, but it adds up to a dispiriting prospect for French democracy: the centre-right government will probably be re-elected thanks to one in four active votes, a low turn-out and transfers from the far right. It would, technically, be an all-powerful government, holding the presidency, the government and the parliament for the next five years. But it would be a morally and politically weak government, with little popular enthusiasm and little mandate to take the difficult budget-cutting or taxing decisions which the EMU guidelines may demand.

Messrs Chirac and Juppe may settle for that. But they should remember the example of John Major in 1992. It is not necessarily a comfortable thing to be re-elected by default. The French have a habit of expressing their political buyers' remorse more directly than the British. The likelihood is that, within a few months, French politics will pour on to the street again.