- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

PARIS The setting for the first significant statement of the French presidential election campaign was fittingly somber: apartment blocks scarred by graffiti in a suburb plagued by crime and juvenile delinquency.
It was there, in Garges-les Gonesse north of Paris, that President Jacques Chirac sent an electoral message to a "troubled France," promising radical methods to curb crime the main issue of the campaign.
Delivered on Feb. 18, a week after Mr. Chirac, standard-bearer of the conservative Rally for the Republic (RPR) announced his candidacy for another term this time for five years instead of seven, changed by a referendum last year the message triggered a prompt response from Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
Announcing that he, too, was seeking France's supreme political office, Mr. Jospin defended the record of his Cabinet and suggested that Mr. Chirac is not what the country needs.
"We must have an active president who gives strong direction and works with the government," he said.
The two men are expected to top the field of a dozen candidates in the first round of voting on April 21. Two weeks later, the decisive runoff election takes place.
Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin faced each other in the 1995 vote, won by Mr. Chirac. During the past four years they have been cooperating in a system know as "cohabitation" a political nightmare joining leaders of opposing constituencies and philosophies. Neither has camouflaged his disklike of the other.
The opening salvos of the campaign were fired amid general indifference from the majority of the voters. A recent opinion poll suggested that 74 percent of the French believe that politicians have no interest in their welfare or their concerns.
Sixty-two percent showed little or no intrest in the election, which will be followed in June by general elections for a new parliament.
Critics say the campaign slogans and tactics hardly differ from those in the 1995 presidential contest. According to Claude Allegre, a former education minister, "France doesn't know where it is going. Our leaders drive our country like bumper cars at a fair looking to avoid collisions and then, when they happen, trying to minimize their effects."
The day Mr. Chirac, 69, announce his plan to eradicate crime, the Interior Ministry published figures that the news media described as "a historic record" about 4 million criminal acts were committed during 2001, close to 11,000 per day. "The suburbs are burning," headlined the conservative daily Le Figaro.
The places that are "burning" are not like the middle-class residential suburbs of most American cities. They are dominated by the so called "cites," clusters of recently constructed blocks known as "moderate-rent housing" (French acronym, HLM). Half their inhabitants are immigrants from France's former African colonies three times the national average.
Garges-Les-Gonesse is the "burning suburbs" in microcosm. Its conservative mayor, Nelly Olin, managed to bring the crime and juvenile delinquency rate down somewhat, but then lost the battle when 30 policeman were transferred to another area. The "cite" made headlines last year when the local synagogue was looted.
"Violence is changing the face of our republic," Mr. Chirac said. "It creates fear and undermines the very foundation of our society. Re-establishing security for all is indispensable."
Among his proposed measures are the appointment of a minister for public security, creation of special "task forces" for troubles areas, and steamlining the judicial system to give the courts "the means of carrying out justice."
In short, like New York City's former mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, Mr. Chirac is preaching "zero tolerance."
He also calls for measures to reduce unemployment (something no French government has succeded in doing in recent years), improving the status of the underpaid medical profession, and attending to growing dissatisfaction in the armed forces.
Mr. Jospin claims that Mr. Chirac has been a lame-duck president with little to show for his seven years in office. Two years after his election, Mr. Chirac called an early parliamentary vote that misfired, giving the Socialist-Communist-Greens coalition a majority in the National Assembly.
Today many French voters feel that, essentially, there is little difference between the two leading candidates.
Both believe that the government should dominate national life, including the economy. Neither has made it clear how he envisages France's role and sovereignty in a new, increasingly integrated Europe. Both are reluctant to acknowledge Germany's growing role in the European Union or that of the United States in the world.
In fact, both Mr. Jospin and Mr. Chirac made anti-American statements before their campaign, with Mr. Jospin attacking U.S. "arrogance" and "simplicity" in foreign policy.
Jean-Pierre Chevenement is perhaps the leading candidate among those expected to be eliminated in the first round of voting. The 72-year-old former minister of industry, education, defense and interior in various Socialist Cabinets describes the election mainly as a contest between two men who have nothing to offer their country.
They are he said, "like two faucets spitting out the same lukewarm water." Mr. Chevenement has based his own campaign on the need for change, and contends that under Mr. Jospin or Mr. Chirac France would remain subservient to the United States.
A conservative candidate who wants to "comfort" a France increasingly mistrustful of politicians is Charles Pasqua, a former interior minister whose strong Corsican accent delights cabaret entertainers.
Mr. Pasqua wants France to "find its color" become "generous, open to the world and not introspective."
Seemingly rough and brusque ("Ask me anything you want, but don't expect an answer," he once told a news conference), Mr. Pasqua distrusts the European Union and modern Europe, which he describes as "without a soul, with a weak currency and with overwhelming and pointless regulations."
The campagin opens at a time when France, along with the rest of the Western world, is in the throes of an economic crisis that politicians tend to blame on the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
It is a time when politicians are resigned to the collapse of what is called "the Paris-Berlin axis," a system of increasing cooperation leading to Europe's domination by France and Germany. At home, many French voters deplore the imposition of a 35-hour week by the Socialist government, under which both productivity and income have been reduced without affecting unemployment.
Also among the presidential candidates are such noisy but marginal figures as Robert Hue, head of the Communist Party, who demands predictably a better life for workers, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, a former paratrooper who leads the extreme-right National Front.
Mr. Le Pen has marked his campaign by statements describing Mr. Chirac as "a master in the art of lying" and Mr. Jospin as a former Communist mole.
As the campaign warms up, it is likely to include Socialist accusations of financial manipulations by the president's office and conservative attacks on Mr. Jospin's past in the Trotskyite branch of the Communist Party.


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