- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2001

PARIS — The French right is basking in a new mood of optimism generated by a resurgence of popular conservatism and corresponding decline in the fortunes of the left.

The conservative Rally for the Republic (RPR) party put on an unusual show of solidarity at its annual congress over the weekend amid hopes that it will sweep next year's legislative and presidential elections.

At the start of the year, such a notion would have seemed fanciful.

The Socialist-led government was presiding over a steadily improving economy. Premier Lionel Jospin appeared to be well-placed to win the presidency from the conservative incumbent, President Jacques Chirac, who was bogged down in scandals dating back to his days as mayor of Paris.

But local government elections in March showed an undertow of dissatisfaction among provincial and small-town voters. The right won many unexpected victories.

Since then, the seeming invulnerability of the government has been undermined by internal divisions and a slackening economy. Mr. Jospin's image of rectitude has been tarnished by the evasive fashion in which he has dealt with recent disclosures about his Trotskyist past.

The left's travails are compounded by a growing public split that is as much to do with personalities as politics. Members of the court of the late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand accuse Mr. Jospin of ingratitude and vindictiveness toward his old patron's followers.

The RPR congress was dominated by two party veterans, former Prime Minister Alain Juppe and former Budget Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who set a robust and populist tone. They called for tougher action against young criminals and for the privatization of the state electricity company.

The gathering also made it clear that Mr. Chirac is still the right's favored presidential candidate, despite his troubles with the law.

The conservatives' optimism and declarations of unity contrasted with increasing disarray on the left.

By giving ground to his Communist Party allies in the government, Mr. Jospin has created tensions with Laurent Fabius, his finance minister. Mr. Fabius has been struggling to steer the government away from old-fashioned interventionism and stick to a promise to decrease taxes.

Disclosures about Mr. Jospin's revolutionary past have added to the discord. When first confronted six years ago with claims that he had been a member of the ultra-radical Internationalist Communist Organization (OCI), Mr. Jospin issued a flat denial.

Last month, when irrefutable evidence emerged that he had been part of an OCI cell while a high-ranking official in the Foreign Ministry and a member of the Socialist Party, he told parliament that the charges were true but that he thought "it was of no interest to anyone."

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