- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

The French elections held over the past eight weeks first for the presidency and next for the National Assembly were the most significant elections held in France since 1981. On the whole, their outcome is good for France, for Europe and for the United States. They restore a political coherence that had been lacking during seven of the last nine years, when the French political system lived under the strained conditions of political cohabitation (1993-1995 and 1997-2002). Moreover, by renewing the primacy of the French presidency, these elections enable Jacques Chirac to assert his leadership during the decisive years that loom ahead for the European Union (EU), as well as for its relations with the United States within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Finally, these elections also confirm Europe's political drift to a center-right that is likely to be made complete after the elections scheduled to be held in Germany in September.

The first round of the presidential elections, on April 22, revealed the anger of the French electorate after five years of a pas de deux poorly choreographed by an allegedly Gaullist president and a reportedly socialist prime minister. The returns were potentially catastrophic for the institutions of the Fifth Republic 36 percent for the two mainstream candidates, 32 percent for another dozen contenders (including the infamous Jean-Marie Le Pen), and an equal percentage of abstentions or blank ballots. This was dangerous for France; left unchecked, such electoral anger would unravel the institutions and produce the sort of divisions that prevailed during the Fourth Republic. Since April 22, first by electing Mr. Chirac to a second five-year term and next by giving him an overwhelming majority in Parliament, the French have voted their national conscience. They may not like Mr. Chirac, and they have little knowledge of his program. But the choices they had were not choices of ideals. On May 5, the alternative to Mr. Chirac was Mr. Le Pen, and the French were truly revolted by that man's extremist idea of France. On June 16, the alternative to Mr. Chirac's newly formed political coalition, the Union for a Presidential Majority, was an institutional chaos that the French knew they could not afford.

Soothing the mood of the electorate will be the priority of the government headed by newcomer Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the prime minister. Two issues define the current mood an unprecedented rise of criminality and a fear of economic decline. In July, an extraordinary session of the National Assembly will endorse the strong law-and-order agenda outlined by the new minister of the interior, Monsieur Sarkozy. This agenda hides a deep concern with immigrants, legal and illegal, and their impact on French society. In waging his battle Mr. Sarkozy, who aims at the presidency in 2007, will not be subtle. No more Mr. Nice Guy: His strategy at home reminds one of President Bush abroad: a buildup of police forces, and emphasis on pre-empting crime rather than merely punishing it.

In addition, there is the matter of the economy. Although the French economy has performed generally well over the past five years, the new government understands the need for genuine institutional reforms that Alain Juppe (also a presidential contender for 2007) wanted to enforce when he served as prime minister during the first two years of Mr. Chirac's presidency. Watch for passage, in July, of a broad-based 5 percent income tax cut. Later in the year, the government will push through reforms on decentralization, pensions and labor flexibility, as Mr. Raffarin tries to reduce France's social rigidities and manage the budgetary constraints imposed by the European Commission in the name of the EU Growth and Stability Pact. The lesson learned from Messrs. Juppe and Jospin over the past seven years is that reforms cannot be delayed. Lest they are implemented quickly and forcefully, there remain serious risks of renewed disruptions that would work to the advantage of an extreme right that will be looking for a new populist leader as Mr. Le Pen continues to age into political oblivion.

Mr. Chirac's role will be especially visible in the area of foreign and security policy, what the French like to call les grandes affaires and which the French constitution views as the president's reserved domain. The controversial Mr. Chirac has a blind date with history: The year 2007, when his term is scheduled to end, will also be the 50th anniversary of the Rome Treaties that launched the process of European integration. To salvage his historic exit, Mr. Chirac will seek to lead a process now known as Europe's "finality debate" and help guide the difficult decisions that the 15 EU members must make about enlargement (2002-2005), institutional reforms (2003-2006), the completion of the euro zone (2004-2007), and the development of a common foreign, security and defense policy.

This is what Mr. Chirac's predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, did after the early failure of his socialist program forced him to adopt Europe as an alternative ambition. Like Mr. Mitterrand, Mr. Chirac is ambivalent about the impact of Europe on France's national sovereignty, but like Mr. Mitterrand, too, he knows that there will be less France without more Europe. ("France," Mr. Mitterrand used to say, "is my country, and Europe is our future.") In addition, unlike Mr. Mitterrand, Mr. Chirac has a friend in Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, who will want to pursue his ambitions for Europe with Mr. Chirac, together with their colleagues in Spain and even Italy (pending Germany's national election). Mr. Blair, who will call for (and win) a referendum on the euro within the next two years, has worked closely with Mr. Chirac since they met in St. Malo in December 1998, as well as since September 11. With Mr. Jospin out of the way, the two men's affinity can at last come out of the closet.

But Mr. Blair and other European leaders are not the only men who can do business with Mr. Chirac. So can President Bush. Already, Mr. Chirac has announced his intention to increase defense spending, now down to an abysmal 1.8 percent of the French gross domestic product. The "Europe" that Mr. Chirac will pursue cannot be conceived in opposition to the United States and NATO. That would not be to the taste of Mr. Blair, and Mr. Chirac will not have the luxury of assuming his co-leadership with a German partner who is no longer as readily available as used to be the case. With the help of his new foreign minister, the brilliant Dominique de Villepin (who served as chief of staff for both Messrs. Juppe and Chirac), the French president will probably return to the ambition he unveiled in late 1995 and was still contemplating when he lost the legislative elections of May-June 1997: France's long-delayed return to NATO and, hopefully, a much-needed end to the persistent and disruptive bilateral quarrel between Washington and Paris. That goal, too, is likely to condition Mr. Chirac's blind date with history, five years from now.

Simon Serfaty is the director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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