Saturday, March 20, 2004

PARIS — French voters are preparing a report card on the performance of the conservative government for the first time since its victory over the Socialists two years ago.

Although today’s elections for the country’s 22 regional councils are mainly about local issues, the vote will be studied as an indicator of the mood in France. It will provide a reasonably clear signal about a host of issues, including the future of conservative President Jacques Chirac, who hopes for a third five-year mandate as the country’s “supreme magistrate.”

With opinion polls shifting from week to week, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Mr. Chirac’s prime minister, tried to downplay the impact of the elections. “Don’t confuse a regional vote with a national vote,” he cautioned.

His warning reflected concern about the national reaction to Mr. Raffarin’s governance, which at the beginning of 2003 gave him a popularity rating of 58 percent only to plunge to 29 percent by December.

Among factors responsible for the steep decline was the conservative government’s neglect of the nation’s health during last summer’s heat wave, which was blamed for an estimated 15,000 deaths.

Although a promise of tax cuts and a popular package of reforms improved the government’s popularity early this year, other developments suggested a need for strict accountability to an increasingly skeptical citizenry.

They include the sentencing of a former prime minister, Alain Juppe, on a charge of tampering with government funds, European Union accusations that France has violated EU regulations, the bitter national debate on the influx and impact of France’s growing Islamic population, fears of growing anti-Semitism, and maneuvers by Paris to impose its political ambitions on Europe.

Accompanying the local issues at stake in today’s vote are others stemming directly or indirectly from global politics. They include national disappointment with France’s diminishing world role, the declining use of the French language in international diplomacy, and France’s frequent opposition to various foreign policy initiatives emanating from Washington.

Although regional elections obviously deal with local issues, most French specialists agree that the outcome of today’s voting will be a judgement on the country’s overall performance.

With unemployment reaching 10 percent of the labor force and no sign of an economic turnaround, many conservatives base their hopes on the disarray of the opposition Socialist Party, basically leaderless and short of new ideas.

The regional elections involve “lists” of candidates submitted by political parties in electoral districts. At the head of many lists are veteran politicians, often with distinguished records.

For example, the head of the conservative list in the central region of Auvergne is Valery Giscard d’Estaing, 78, a former president of France and one of the main authors of the proposed European Union constitution that has yet to be approved.

Local tribunals can reject candidates on various grounds. Thus, a special court in Marseille has barred Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front, from running on grounds that he had not proved his eligibility.

Mr. Le Pen thundered back that the tribunal represented “a banana republic.”

The governing conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) is emphasizing new faces and new ideas among its candidates. Thus only 240 current members of regional councils have been put on the lists, compared with 1,460 relatively unknown and younger candidates. The average age of UMP candidates is 49, compared to 45 among the Socialists.

Voting will take place in two rounds, the second to be held next Sunday with shorter lists after less-popular candidates are culled.

Local issues are myriad and vary according to region. They include widespread concern in the wine-growing areas of Bordeaux and Burgundy over an alarming drop in wine consumption, the demands of pig farmers for higher subsidies, complaints about the crime rate in major cities, and periodic demonstrations by underpaid hospital personnel.

While regional administrations can hardly be blamed for diminishing wine consumption, the issue is crucial to highway and countryside restaurants because of stricter drinking and driving controls. In the Bordeaux region, an estimated 57,000 families derive their income from wine growing and processing, and perhaps even more from wine-related activities.

At election rallies, a main theme is the demand for a more sustained effort by the government and regional authorities, and more subsidies — which depend on taxes and thus on the country’s economic performance.

Economic performance has been discouraging, showing a slump beyond all forecasts and putting France, and Germany, too, on the brink of recession.

Nonetheless, the conservative leadership has remained optimistic. Mr. Chirac promises that the current year will be one of “action and results,” while Mr. Raffarin has pledged to carry out promised reforms “to the end.”

The regional elections will show whether the country has faith in its conservative leaders or takes their words for “politics as usual.”

One of the heaviest blows to Mr. Raffarin’s popularity was last summer’s unprecedented heat wave, which caught the country unprepared despite alarming forecasts by the meteorological service.

About half of France’s hospital personnel were allowed to go on their usual monthlong vacations and an estimated 15,000 people — mostly elderly — died, mainly because of lack of medical care. Mr. Chirac was vacationing in Canada where, according to the conservative daily Le Figaro, he maintained “a surprisingly long, cool silence.”

It was only after his return that he promised “total transparency” from the authorities and to “remedy the inadequacies of the health service.”

Through most of last fall, France was preoccupied with a seemingly harmless issue that eventually acquired the proportions of a national emergency: Should Muslim schoolgirls be allowed to cover their heads in public-school classrooms?

The wide-ranging debate soon involved such issues as upholding secularism and religious neutrality in government, the extent of immigration from France’s former colonies and whether it should be allowed to continue, and the relations between France’s majority Christians with Muslims and Jews.

Claims that a perceived rise of anti-Semitism was part of the fallout of the turmoil in the Middle East were dismissed by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s curt statement that “anti-Semitism existed long before the existence of Israel.”

The uproar over schoolgirls in headscarves was resolved by parliament’s approval of a government decision banning all “conspicuous religious symbols” in government-supported schools, a move that also barred the wearing of Jewish skullcaps or prominent Christian crosses.

Commentators described the decision as a stopgap measure, sidestepping the basic issues of tolerance, assimilation and ethnic coexistence.

While the vexing problem had little impact on the government’s performance — in fact, public opinion approved the ban — the conservatives found themselves in late January defending one of their prominent figures, accused of misusing public funds.

A special tribunal issued an 18-month suspended prison sentence and a 10-year ban on holding public office to Alain Juppe — head of the ruling UMP, mayor of Bordeaux and member of the National Assembly.

Before that, Mr. Juppe had served as a prime minister and foreign minister and was considered a likely successor to Mr. Chirac.

The judges — who were reportedly threatened during the trial — found Mr. Juppe guilty of using Paris municipal funds to pay UMP officials while he was an aide to Mr. Chirac, at that time mayor of the French capital.

Both Mr. Chirac and Mr. Raffarin rushed to the defense of Mr. Juppe, described by the French president as “an exceptional man, the man France needs, the best of us.” While appealing the verdict, Mr. Juppe kept all his official posts and privileges.

Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande claimed Mr. Juppe was covering up for Mr. Chirac, who had been aware of the financial manipulations. The president is protected by special immunity while in office.

The issue — as well the graft convictions of two other prominent conservative politicians — is likely to weigh heavily in today’s vote, to be exploited by the socialist and communist opposition.

Francois Leotard, a former defense minister, culture minister and head of the now-defunct Republican Party, got a suspended 10-month jail sentence for using a fake bank scheme to finance his party. Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, spokesman for Mr. Chirac’s UMP, was fined $20,000 for helping cover up Mr. Leotard’s scam.

French pundits believe that although removed from the basic issues in the regional elections, the stigma of corruption tarnishing some leading conservatives is likely to harm their candidates today and next Sunday in the voting booths.

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