LEADING ARTICLE : France votes for pragmatism

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The Independent Online
Jacques Chirac's victory yesterday puts the French presidency in the hands of a man of experience, intelligence and proven skills of leadership. In choosing him, France becomes the first leading nation to have chosen the head of state who will lead into the new millennium. Forsaking socialist leadership, its voters have opted for the first Gaullist president since Georges Pompidou died in office in 1974.

It is tempting to think that the new president, being a man loyal to the tradition of Charles de Gaulle, will take a more sceptical attitude to the European Union than has President Mitterrand, and that he might align France with Britain in a common front against a more closely united Europe. In fact, although Mr Chirac is not a Mitterrand or a Jacques Delors, he is still part of the French consensus that puts a premium on making a success of the Franco-German partnership. He can be expected to pursue an amicable relationship with Germany and a more federal view about the future of Europe than certainly many British Conservatives would like.

He remains, however, an enigma. The election campaign demonstrated his talent for being all things to all people and for leaving question marks over his policies. In the first round he emphasised themes such as reducing unemployment and assisting the poor. Then he moved to the right, warning of the social disruption related to Muslim immigration. By the end of last week he was back in the centre, stressing the duty to heal social wounds.

On European policy, too, Mr Chirac gave conflicting signals. At times he seemed enthusiastic about monetary union, at other times less so. It is still not entirely clear whether he favours a referendum in France on the institutional reforms, including some form of political union, that may emerge from the European Union's intergovernmental conference next year. Mr Chirac's commitment to a strong franc capable of joining the German mark in a single currency, and his commitment to reduce the state budget deficit, do not sit easily with his commitment to spend money on the creation of jobs, housing and other areas of social policy.

However, it is hardly unusual for politicians to varnish their election programmes with ambiguity. Winning is the priority and, in French presidential elections, that usually requires putting together an uncomfortable coalition of diverse opinion. Mr Chirac is now in a position to clarify his policies. He can govern with the assistance of the conservative majority in the National Assembly and is therefore much better placed to provide coherent leadership than Bill Clinton, John Major or Helmut Kohl, each of whom has either a weak majority or none at all in his legislature. The new French president now has a real opportunity to inject his nation with the sense of purpose that seemed to drain away in Franois Mitterrand's later years.

The biggest challenge remains Europe. Mr Chirac must now make it clear where he wants to strike the balance between a Europe of deeper integration and a Europe in which France retains its character as a distinct nation state. Clearly his victory does not offer Britain an escape route from the European question. What we can hope for is more flexibility from a man who has obviously used pragmatism to such successful effect in winning the presidency.