- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002

PARIS On the reviewing stand overlooking the broad Avenue des Champs Elysees on this Bastille Day, President Jacques Chirac has reason to be satisfied.
Over the past three months he has won a second five-year mandate to lead France and has succeeded in persuading the voters to elect a predominantly conservative Cabinet.
Thus the obstacle of leftist opposition to his plans has been eliminated, and the threat of having to "cohabitate" with a Socialist prime minister as in Mr. Chirac's previous term has been removed.
According to his aides, Mr. Chirac now has "five years to change France."
Opinions are divided about the president's ability to live up to his electoral promises and push through reforms he and his supporters consider indispensable to make France economically competitive, better administered, militarily self-sufficient and more influential on the world scene.
Mr. Chirac proceeded very quickly to put loyal Gaullists in charge of all the levers of power, causing concern among other conservatives who have joined his recently formed Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP).
"Chirac and his prime minister can control all sources of power but may remain impotent unless they can convince public opinion of the need for reform," commented the liberal daily Le Monde.
Before inspecting the colorful ranks of troops at today's traditional parade along "the world's most beautiful avenue," Mr. Chirac promised to modernize France's defenses to make them capable of waging the war against international terrorism.
"The war against terrorism is not only the business of the United States," he declared aboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. "France should be capable of assuming its responsibilities in Europe and in the world."
Mr. Chirac's defense minister, Michele Alliot-Marie the first woman to hold the post in French history has the task of revamping the French defense industry and of giving more mobility and independence to the military.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the minister of the interior, will oversee a considerable increase in police forces and judicial apparatus to stem the tide of crime and lack of security, the major concern of French voters.
The overall task of "changing France" is supervised by Premier Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a somewhat diffident, loyal lieutenant of Mr. Chirac's who has instructed Cabinet members to proceed "on the double" in drafting an ambitious program before the country's traditional summer recess in August.
Conferences and more informal meetings last into the late evening hours at the elegant Matignon palace, the prime minister's office.
France has been an enigma to its allies with its 35-hour work week, quasipermanent strikes, record rates of growth and unemployment, the enviable welfare system and the inability of successive governments to impose significant reforms.
Mr. Raffarin's aides complain that the Cabinet has been burdened by a residue of populist measures from the previous government of Socialist Premier Lionel Jospin, including grossly inaccurate accounting figures.
According to lawmaker Jean-Pierre Soisson: "The Jospin government lied to the parliament about the extent of the public deficit," listing it as 1.4 percent of the gross domestic product instead of 2.4 percent a difference of $45 billion.
The Socialists suffered a stunning defeat in the June parliament elections, and Mr. Jospin angrily withdrew from politics,"forever," he said
Mr. Raffarin's "cautiously ambitious" program was approved by the National Assembly on July 3 by 375 votes to 173. The dissenting votes were cast by Socialists and their Communist allies.
In a speech to the National Assembly, Mr. Raffarin outlined what he described as his "architecture of power" an agenda that includes constitutional changes, reform of the education system and more authority for administrative regions.
On the latter point he said: "Giving the regions greater financial autonomy will make them more responsible and will eliminate duplication."
Key elements of the Raffarin agenda which basically embodies Mr. Chirac's electoral platform include slashing the income tax by 5 percent, reducing by 800,000 the army of civil servants, and decentralizing the cumbersome administrative system.
The program is likely to run into difficulties in a country some cynics describe as run by "an opaque, uncontrollable, inefficient and deeply entrenched administration."
Veronique Grousset, writing in the conservative Figaro Magazine, observed that "the reason the French expect everything from the state is because the state has always interfered in everything."
Mr. Raffarin says he wants to build "a more human France" and reduce the suffocating control of the central administration.
The country he and Mr, Chirac want to change has considerable and impressive economic clout. Although France has only 1 percent of the planet's population, it is the world's leading tourist destination, with 76 million visitors in 2001. Four out of five households own at least one car, 54 percent own their homes, and 20 percent have a computer at home.
On the negative side of the balance sheet is the overwhelming burden of the cradle-to-grave social security system, the 35-hour work week adopted by the socialists, and retirement at age 60.
Between 5 million and 10 million French citizens earn less than $1,000 a month, although the figure includes those drawing unemployment benefits and part-time workers unable to secure full-time employment.
Moreover, 9.1 percent of the work force is unemployed, and during the past five-year period, 80 percent of jobs created were at salaries below $1,100 a month.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide