John Lichfield: Why the French keep punishing their leaders

Most depressing is that the Socialists won without offering any alternative vision

At a Socialist election rally in Middle France last week, I was surrounded by middle-class people - a bank official, an insurance agent, a retired headteacher - who planned to vote for the Left. All of them admitted cheerfully that they had voted for the Right less than two years ago.

Why, the abrupt change? Because, they said, President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, were governing on behalf of the "notables" (big people) and not for little, or middling, men or women like them. Because, they said, the economic and social reforms begun by M. Raffarin threatened the acquis social - or established, social benefits - from pensions to health care. All of them were comfortably-off people.

The bank official had just retired on full pay at 58. When he reaches 60, he will have to take a pension of "only" 70 per cent of his final salary - an excellent example of the advantages of the acquis social. The insurance agent had a large, inherited, country house to dispose of. Would I publish his telephone number in the British press? Twelve bedrooms for only €400,000 (£267,000).

On Sunday, these and other middle-class people across France - and many blue-collar workers and the unemployed - voted overwhelmingly to "punish" President Chirac and Prime Minister Raffarin. The second round of regional elections, always likely to be a mid-term reverse, turned into a Waterloo, a Berezina, for the centre-right.

Of the 26 regions in France, all but one - Alsace - voted for the centre-left. Prime Minister Raffarin is likely to be dumped within a week (possibly after the Queen's state visit to France next Monday to Wednesday). President Chirac faces a final three years of his second term - probably the last of his long political career - as a lame-duck president. Less than a year ago his percentage popularity ratings sweltered in the upper 80s after he defied the American plans to invade Iraq.

The year before that, French voters humiliated a competent, likable Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, who had presided over five years of steady economic growth and declining unemployment. Now, the same voters, or maybe a somewhat different cast of voters, have humiliated a reasonably, competent, likable centre-right prime minister. What great crimes have M. Chirac and M. Raffarin committed in the past 20 months? They have presided over a period of economic slow-down that was outside their control. They have pressed ahead, foolishly, with sharp cuts in income tax which have benefited the rich and have helped to stoke the French budget deficit to Euro-illegal levels - more than 4 per cent of GDP last year. M. Raffarin's greatest crime in the eyes of the electorate seems to have been to advance, sometimes clumsily, but mostly with common sense, the economic and social reforms promised at the general election in June 2002. A reform of the bankruptcy-threatened state pension system was long overdue. The system of unemployment pay faces unsustainable deficits. So does the often, and rightly, praised, French health service.

As a bewildered M. Raffarin points out, his approach has been hardly Thatcherite. He finds himself, he says, far to the Left of Tony Blair's New Labour and somewhat to the left of the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder. But he stands accused - by many in the middle classes, not just the blue collar classes and the romantic Left - of selling out to some kind of ultra-capitalist, unFrench vision of France's future.

A bizarre pattern has been established in the past 15 or 20 years of French politics. The voters complain that politicians betray their promises and do nothing to reform the country. If the politicians try to change anything, the electorate punishes them.

This is not just perversity or skittishness. It is based on the self-interest of the middle class and, especially the large part of them who are state employed. The "French model", of high state spending and good public services, is creditable in many ways. Unlike in Britain, the French middle classes do not feel that they need to pay a second time for health or education. It is also the middle classes that benefit most from early retirement and the 35 hour week. The poorer classes tend to do less well. The reduced dynamism of a state-dominated French economy robs them of jobs. The services - from education to health to transport - are less effective in working class areas.

No French politician of either Right or Left has had the skill, or vision, to persuade the middle classes - or any other classes - that a distinction can be made between excellent public services and unsustainable social benefits and state spending. Put crudely, High Speed Trains are "good"; allowing train drivers to retire at 50 after working a 12 hour week, is "bad".

The most depressing aspect of the weekend results was that the centre-left won a landslide victory without offering any alternative vision for the future. The secretary general of the Parti Socialiste, François Hollande - another competent, decent man - said words to the effect of "We have won an election. Now lets go away and think of a programme." Plus ça change ...

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