Upbeat Juppe tells France to smile

MARY DEJEVSKY

Paris

What the French need to make them feel happier about their government, the prime minister, Alain Juppe, has decided, is some determined fostering of the "feelgood factor". And this - during an hour-long television interview last night and a baby-kissing, flesh-pressing visit to the northern port of Caen on Friday - is what he is proposing to offer from now on.

There is a certain irony in Mr Juppe's attempt at a new, upbeat style. For it was the taut and dogmatic manner he espoused during the first eight months of his prime ministership that did so much to encourage a "feel- bad" factor - much of it directed towards him. That public antipathy is undiminished. The latest opinion poll shows him languishing low in the politicians' popularity chart, with only a 27 per cent approval rating (two points down on a month ago).

At the end of last week, however, Mr Juppe felt that it was time to take the initiative, whatever the polls said. On Thursday evening, before they all departed for their constituencies, he called his ministers together for a government "seminar". The meeting was followed by a feast of the southern fish stew, bouillabaisse, donated by the urban affairs minister and mayor of Marseilles, Jean-Claude Gaudin.

According to reports of the meeting, Mr Juppe made clear that he was in for the long haul and outlined a legislative programme to run up to the parliamentary elections in 1998. The chief elements of the programme were the completion of the controversial welfare reforms (in their curtailed form), legislating for the defence industry and armed forces changes heralded by President Chirac last month, and the much-heralded - but so far stalled - education reform.

Mr Juppe also instructed his ministers to get out into the country and understand the concerns of voters. "You know your constituencies; you should be plugged into the everyday life of French people," he said. Summed up by the justice minister and number two in the government, the main objective was to give people a "better sense of well-being" - in other words, a feelgood factor.

While some ministers might have felt that Mr Juppe was not best qualified to preach about getting out and about and understanding real life, let alone disseminating the feelgood factor, they will have grasped the underlying message without difficulty. After a chequered 10 months in office, the prime minister no longer feels his job is on the line; he is planning for the future and can abandon his hang-dog diffidence.

Last night, Mr Juppe shared the good news - bumping the former Socialist prime minister, Michel Rocard, off the peak-time political programme to do so. "Winter is over and spring is on its way - for our policies ... and for the French people."

Mr Juppe's revival is the culmination of several weeks in which - with a few notable exceptions, such as Edouard Balladur - influential Gaullists and centre- right politicians have competed with each other to offer him their support. Pro- government political commentators have also tried to talk up the prime minister: he may not be popular now, said a Figaro editorial, but in a few months time, he may be widely praised for his persistence, single- mindedness and rigour.

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