- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2001

PARIS — A daunting package of issues, including a growing crime rate, unemployment and a difficult transition into the joint European currency, awaits action as French officials return after their traditional summer pause.
Commentators say that France has rarely been more uncertain of the future, and many doubt whether the socialist coalition of Premier Lionel Jospin can reverse the nation's declining fortune.
Under pressure from his aides and in the face of a growing rift within his government's left-wing factions, Mr. Jospin spoke to the nation Tuesday in a televised interview that gave few concrete answers.
His loyal socialists claimed he had shown "statesmanship and quality of leadership" while the opposition conservatives described the 45 minute interview as a "warmed-up soup."
Robert Hue, who heads the Communist Party allied with the socialists, charged that the prime minister "is not being sufficiently socialist," and has been "tepid in his objectives and pale in results."
Thus began what the French describe as "la rentree" or return to normal activity after the stupor of the past six weeks when news was mainly dominated by reports of weather vagaries, crime and traffic congestion near the popular seaside resorts.
Upon their return to Paris from various spas, members of the government discovered that the crime rate was up nearly 10 percent compared with last year, that the economic situation was shaky and that hospitals had to import nurses from Spain to fill some of the 50,000 vacant posts.
In preparation for the adoption of the euro on Jan. 1, the government had expected that 50 percent of payments by checks and credit cards during the summer would be made in euros rather than in francs.
But in July only 1.07 percent of such transactions were in the joint currency.
Mr. Jospin defended the euro in his interview as a currency "which has already played a positive role, sparing us from external speculations."
Having adopted a 35-hour working week for civil servants and major companies, the government discovered that applying it to small firms employing fewer than 20 workers would not be possible without considerable changes in the law.
The inexorable effect of globalization has led to predictable layoffs and protest strikes, although Mr. Jospin claimed that his government created 1.7 million jobs during the past four years.
Mr. Jospin promised "vigilance" during the six-week euro transition period in January and February, when francs must be exchanged for euros.
French newspapers generally expect a wave of robberies as well as an increase in prices when shopkeepers shift currencies.
Mr. Jospin firmly stressed his opposition to a national referendum on independence for the scenic island of Corsica between the French and Italian coasts. Hard-line nationalists have been waging a relentless terror war on the island, killing 20 politicians during the first eight months of this year.
The French prime minister refused to be drawn into any discussion of abuse of public funds by politicians and of the proposed plan to abolish the so-called "secret funds" that Cabinet members have at their disposal.
"Secret funds have existed throughout republican rule," he said, vaguely promising that their reform "will be dealt with" and that unused money would be returned to state coffers at the end of the present Cabinet's mandate.
Mr. Jospin declined to confirm or deny his widely expected candidacy in next year's presidential election. He merely acknowledged that his "cohabitation" with conservative President Jacques Chirac "has reached its limits."
According to most recent opinion polls, Mr. Chirac is favored to win a new mandate over his socialist opponent.


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