The coming Chirac-Sarkozy prize fight: but will France when it's over be left with any hope for the prize of genuine reform?

Author:Ries, Philippe

At the European Council last March, European journalists looked stunned as French President Jacques Chirac went into a lengthy rant against "liberal globalization" at his final press conference. One joked afterward that he expected Chirac to stand up, raise a tight fist, and start singing the old Internationale" workers anthem. At the summit, Chirac, nominally a conservative, reportedly told his fellow European heads of state and government that "liberalism (i.e., pro free-market and deregulation in the European meaning of the word) was the communism of our days," a kind of fundamentalism that would deliver equally catastrophic results.

Actually, the tirade was not so surprising coming from a man who strongly supports a Tobin tax of a sort on international financial transactions to fund development aid and regards Brazilian leftist President Lula da Silva as a "comrade." And if you get confused, you are not alone. So have been the French people and Chirac's own political allies.

In a political career spread over more than three decades, Chirac has earned a well-deserved reputation for ideological inconsistency. This one-time advocate of French-styled "Labour" policies ("travaillisme a la francaise") has been an ineffective prime minister under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Back to the same position under socialist President Francois Mitterrand, in an arrangement called "cohabitation" (when the president and the prime minister come from opposite camps), he pushed for privatization of the big French companies previously nationalized after Mitterrand's election in 1981. But he could not prevent Mitterrand from getting a second term in 1988.

In 1995, Chirac finally reached the pinnacle of French politics by entering the Elysee Palace thanks to a campaign based on leftist rhetoric against the so-called "social divide" in France between the haves and the have-nots. He prevailed in the first round against outgoing prime minister Edouard Balladur, his "friend of thirty years" but by then bitter rival, and went on to defeat the socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. But the pro-business policies (fiscal tightening, further privatization of public-owned companies, attempted deregulation of the labor market, reform of the bankrupted pension system) pursued by Chirac protege Prime Minister Alain Juppe squarely contradicted his campaign promises. By winter 1995, half of France, led by the unions in the bloated public sector, was up in arms against the government. Massive strikes in the...

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