Leading Article: French voters have Britain in their hands

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The Independent Online
Jacques Chirac is taking a great risk. By ordering the premature dissolution of the National Assembly the French president is putting his authority on the line, along with the fate of the centre-right majority. He puts Europe at risk, too. Or rather, he may be jeopardising the "project" of monetary union and deeper institutional integration within the European Union. For during the election campaign, short as it is, a Gallic brand of Euro-scepticism (not to be confused with the offshore species) may seize its hour.

"Europe is peace," M Chirac said in his television address to the French people on Monday. But what if significant numbers of electors prefer war - war on the unemployment they may (wrongly) blame on preparation for the single currency, war on the cuts in social spending they (half-correctly) blame on the euro, war on the fishermen and beef-farmers of Britain and the freedom of trade which has allowed their produce into France? On present arithmetic the Gaullist-liberal majority in the assembly will lose seats but retain power. But what if - this is not a contradictory proposition - the elections result in an assembly in which European nay- sayers have the edge (for example if the National Front makes big gains or the Gaullists in the RPR stiffen their stance)?

In such circumstances, French participation in the Amsterdam intergovernmental conference in June becomes problematic ... a lamed president and an uncertain prime minister would be unlikely to offer strong leadership. In turn, German attitudes would be affected, for the French would surely be pressing to soften the Maastricht criteria and politicise the conduct of the European bank. And so on.

This then is an election to watch. Without France - meaning the assent of French people in the main - there can be no monetary union. Without France - meaning a French government confirmed in power - institutional reformation within the European Union cannot happen. Thus on France and French electors depends the very opportunity for a British prime minister to display the macho attitudes espoused so ostentatiously in recent days by Messrs Major and Blair.

The constitutional power under which President Chirac has acted saw service in 1968 when Charles de Gaulle faced a crisis of state. M Chirac's position is hardly comparable. The Gaullist-liberal coalition has a handsome majority of seats which did not have to be vacated till next year - allowing more than enough time to enact the savings needed if France is to meet the Maastricht criteria. Dissolution now, as the socialist leader Lionel Jospin observed, looks suspiciously like a request for a blank cheque, not just to make spending cuts but to accept the euro on more or less Germany's terms. To that extent, this will be a European election, a chance for the French people to revisit the territory they voted on in that close referendum in 1992.

Of course there are other factors in play, among them the corruption charges pending against a number of the President's henchmen (and in the case of the mayor of Paris, Jean Tiberti, their wives too). For many Frenchmen and women, Europe may bulk considerably less large than their resentment at unemployment or immigration. There is in France (as in Germany) a note of that fatalism about the European "project" - Jacques Santer, president of the European Commission, was using the language of historical inevitability again the other day - which grates so on British ears. Yet it seems unlikely that Europe will not feature in this French election. A key figure is M Jospin. He resolutely opposes further "austerity" for the sake of meeting the Maastricht criteria. If he makes Europe the issue this contest can only be viewed - here in the United Kingdom - as most welcome.

Here is an opportunity to test the water, to consult, to seek to bring the costs and opportunities of closer union home to people. Europe cannot be built by policy elites: that surely was the lesson of the Maastricht referendums five years ago. M Santer recognised the fact in his controversial speech, though he offered few thoughts on the remedy. M Jospin has spoken about offering a referendum - another means of securing the people's assent (or their rejection) of momentous actions taken by governments in their name.

Another reason for attending these elections closely is to learn something about the ideology of British Euro-scepticism. In France, M Jospin wants to make an issue of the Juppe government's economic liberalism by identifying the enemy of France as that "capitalisme dur" which the Anglo-Saxons have clasped to their bosoms and which he does not want to see built into the European Union. Thus his demand for an "economic government" to parallel the European Central Bank. M Jospin is being pushed to take an even tougher line on the euro by the Communists. But, inevitably, the anti-Brussels banner will be waved most energetically by Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose latest bon mot is that the Holocaust was an "historical detail".

Across the Continent, intelligent Euro-scepticism is starting to be heard from the left-of-centre, for example in Germany from Gerhard Schroder, the prime minister of Lower Saxony. Atavistic, hard-nationalist Europhobia, a territory inhabited here by certain Tory MPs and their one-time paymaster Sir James Goldsmith, is in France and Germany the prerogative of the far right.

The French election campaign will begin in earnest next month, leading to a first round of votes on 25 May. By then many British people will be panting: "enough elections!" But the contest is worth following. It is not much exaggeration to say that upon its outcome the fate of the next British government hangs.