So why can't Lionel be more Blair-ish?

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The Independent Online
Here is a conundrum. The British economy is booming; unemployment is falling; and the opposition Socialists seem certain to come to power. The French economy is faltering; unemployment is rising; and the opposition Socialists are melting down in the polls.

Who said politics was about the economy, stupid?

A Labour victory this spring will be cautiously welcomed all over Europe. But one man who might have reason to give faint praise to a Prime Minister Tony Blair is his fraternal neighbour, Lionel Jospin, leader of the French Socialist Party.

Mr Jospin, a teddy-bear of a man with frizzy white hair previously regarded as a solid second-rater, came unexpectedly close to being elected President nearly two years ago. His failure to build on that performance, and particularly his failure to give the French socialists a Blairish new sheen is being criticised in the left-leaning French media. "The Socialist Party has entered the post-Mitterrand era but not yet entered the modern era where the British Labour Party is now living," wrote the leading political scientist, Jean-Claude Casanova, in Le Monde.

That was several weeks ago. Since then, the Socialist leader has suffered one embarrassment after another. Last month the ultra-right Front National ousted a Socialist mayor in Vitrolles, near Marseilles, a long-term stronghold of Mr Jospin's party. The victory helped to trigger the most energetic left-wing reaction in years: a series of intellectual-led marches and petitions, principally against a new immigration law, but, in part, against the Front.

Such unexpected signs of life on the cultural and intellectual left might have been good news for the political left. But Mr Jospin was pushed into an awkward position, and made it worse. To have supported the petitions wholeheartedly, as the Communists did, would have aligned the Socialists against attempts to combat illegal immigration. This would have gone down badly with white voters in the poorer suburbs and industrial towns, where the Front is gobbling up votes. So Mr Jospin neither fully supported the intellectuals' revolt nor fully opposed it. On the day of the biggest protest march in Paris, he chose to parade in his home town, Toulouse, where the turn-out was tiny.

There is further embarrassment for the Socialists in the courts, which have just begun trying a series of cases on illegal slush-funding in the 1980s. Although Mr Jospin is not personally implicated, he has found himself squeezed on another front, Europe.

The Communists, as well as radical allies and components of the Socialists, have opposed the single currency, but the party leader has, with minor cavils, supported the pro-Euro policy of the centre-right government. This has made it difficult for him to launch a coherent criticism of the widely disliked state-shrinking reform programme launched by President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe.

The programme is partly intended to squeeze France into the glass slipper of the Maastricht budget guide- lines. Mr Jospin cannot reject the policy, because he knows that after the parliamentary elections due next March, he might have to implement it.

Here is the rub. Mr Jospin is an honourable, straightforward and intellectually honest man. Unlike President Chirac, and unlike his own previous boss, Francois Mitterrand, he is unwilling to promise one thing in opposition and do another in government. His reward is to see his own ratings shrink - by 6 per cent in the last month - to only just above those of President Chirac. Almost two-thirds of French voters say they can see no difference between Socialist policies and government policies.

Here is the second rub. Mr Jospin is right to think in terms of government, rather than opposition. Unless the French economy improves dramatically, it is still possible for him to win next March. Under present voting rules, a good performance by the Front would seize them a block of seats and put the left in a position where even a modest performance might be enough to unseat the Juppe government. Mr Jospin would then be in "co-habitation" with President Chirac.

At the moment Lionel may be plagued by the question, "Why can't you be more like Tony?" But in a year's time, more by accident than design, France as well as Britain could find itself with a Socialist Prime Minister.