A new image for a new century

How did Jacques Chirac convince France he was a man of true change? Mary Dejevsky explains
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It was no more than historical and constitutional coincidence that President Franois Mitterrand's last great public duty, after 14 years in office, was to preside over France's celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe. But as the flags of 80 nations waved in the light wind around the Arc de Triomphe yesterday morning, and Mr Mitterrand's skeletal figure inspected the troops drawn up before him, it was hard not to feel that an age was passing.

In France, commentators have made much of the fact that in electing Jacques Chirac to be their next president, the French are the first Europeans to have chosen the leader who will take them into the 21st century. Mr Chirac, unlike his Socialist opponent, Lionel Jospin, made no promise to shorten the presidential term. Health and political circumstances permitting, he will be in office at least until 2002.

In the view of French pundits, this somehow seems to imbue Mr Chirac with the sort of forward-looking qualities that his whole career history and philosophy until recently have seemed to contradict. He has, after all, a political record that goes back more than 30 years; he has twice served as prime minister and twice stood unsuccessfully for the presidency. He has been regarded throughout that time as a conservative and a Gaullist, though one with shifting priorities.

This time, for his third campaign, Mr Chirac traded on an image of himself that was quite different: he sold himself as a man for the future, the candidate of "true change". And while it is certainly the case that he is of a different generation from Mr Mitterrand, and was still "in short trousers", as French writers put it, when the war ended, he is none the less, at 62, of the post-war generation. The memories of war scarred his youth and helped to form his outlook.

Both for this reason, and for reasons of his political history, the job of repackaging himself as the candidate of "real change" should not have been as easy for him, or as successful in electoral terms, as he made it look. Why did his "newness" convince enough people to ensure him the presidency, and is it as new as all that?

One partial explanation is that the newness resided as much in the electorate as in the candidate. When an election is held only once every seven years, the electorate changes far more in the space of a single term than in countries where the term is shorter. Even if there is no new candidate, the composition of the electorate is different.

During the campaign, Mr Chirac astutely shifted emphasis in his efforts to capture different constituencies. By the latter stages of his first- round campaigning, he was targeting precisely the new voters - those with no memory of his former self, and those who had had no chance to become politically disillusioned. And, at the same time, he was trying to garner support from another target group: those voters who had become disillusioned with the traditional ways of doing things.

His campaign had begun quite differently. He started by courting his traditional constituencies: the farmers, small business people, people generally of modest means. And he offered them a traditional Gaullist message: that France was a great country, that France had to preserve its Frenchness, and that it had to be one nation. He began, too, by alluding often to the legacy of de Gaulle, guaranteeing cheers from his supporters, and ending his meetings with the resonant: "Vive la rpublique, vive la France."

In the course of spreading that message, however, he seemed to discover two new constituencies almost by accident. One consisted of his young, first-time voters. The other comprised people for whom his one-nation message transcended all else and assumed a new significance at a time when many French people regard their country as suffering from a deepening, and possibly terminal, social division.

Both these discoveries changed his campaign and could change the face of French politics, for they linked the messages of right and left. What is more, they proved to be an electoral success.

The difference between Mr Chirac's first Paris rally, in early February, and his youth rally just before the first round, was startling and illustrates the change. The first rally gave the impression of being a very traditional affair; it was enthusiastic in a reserved way, and very French, with much talk of traditional values and the French "exception" - an extraordinary notion of claiming special international status, particularly in matters cultural. But this was bound together with expressions of deep concern about social rifts, some of which could have come from the Socialist Party programme.

Beyond the necessary organisation of several thousand people, there was none of the stage-management and razzmatazz of later gatherings, where impossibly loud disco music, minor rock stars in live performance and free apples and T-shirts all round became the order of the day.

The youth rally in mid-April had all these accoutrements and was stage- managed to the hilt, disturbingly so. The moderate Le Monde newspaper has just been taken to task by the independent French broadcasting commission for publishing a commentary which likened it to the Nuremberg rally, but there were echoes of that disturbing display in it. The social message had also become stronger and the ingredients more particular. Social deprivation, youth unemployment, Aids - which has become a youth cause in France on a huge scale - were all addressed.

In the space of two months, Mr Chirac had sensed what these particular constituencies wanted to hear, and he was addressing their concerns. In doing so, he was also breaking down some of the established political boundaries. Tellingly, he adjusted the final line of his speeches, declaiming (when he remembered to follow the text): "Vive notre rpublique, vive la France", introducing a distinctly populist note into what had been a lofty benediction.

It is possible to exaggerate the extent to which Mr Chirac managed to colonise the constituency of young voters or "steal" older voters from the Socialists. The first round of voting simply showed the young voters were just as fickle as they had been suspected of being and that the Socialists were almost as universally loyal. Nor was Mr Chirac's victory the landslide he might have hoped for in February.

The margin was, however, greater than Mr Mitterrand's in 1981 or Mr Valry Giscard d'Estaing's in 1974, and in gaining so clear a majority, Mr Chirac appears to have convinced a sufficient number of voters that his apparently irreconcilable targets - of lower taxes and better public services, a strong franc, a lower domestic budget deficit and lower unemployment, as well as the single European currency - are, if not actually achievable, then at least desirable and worth aiming for.

Mr Chirac may well not be able to deliver, in which case France may be in for a period of sharp disappointment and, some predict, social unrest. If there was one thing that united the French voters in 1995, however, it was their disillusionment with politicians in general and their utter cynicism that politics as such could go anywhere near solving what they perceived to be France's prevailing ills.

Given this general mood, any disillusionment may be limited. And in the remote eventuality that Mr Chirac should succeed - at a job which, after all, he has had more than 14 years to prepare for - he will have broken the Gaullist-Socialist mould, proved himself a man of "true change", and genuinely earned the accolade given to him this week, as the politician to take France into the 21st century.