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Europeans Wistful As US Gets New Chief

Clinton's inauguration has French wishing for fresh, young leadership

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 20, 1993



PARIS

AS Bill Clinton raises his hand to take the oath of office, the French and much of the rest of Europe, it seems, are looking on with a serious case of envy.

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"Clinton's election made me realize just how long our leaders have been around, on the left and the right," says Isabelle Jounent as she keeps one eye on her daughter playing in a Paris park. "We, too, need some new faces."

The young mother is not alone in her thinking. With fresh polls showing better than two-thirds of the French disapproving of the Socialist leadership they first elected to power in 1981, analysts say Mr. Clinton's arrival in Washington reinforces widespread desire here for change.

"The French people clearly envy the Americans their ability to renew their political leadership," says Pascal Perrineau, director of the Center for French Political Life Studies here.

"All the polls indicate what everyone assumes, that French voters will turn out the Socialists for a parliamentary majority of the right in March elections," Mr. Perrineau adds.

"What distresses the French is that it is already destined to be a change to the same politicians, and Clinton's arrival only reinforces the sense of dissatisfaction."

From Germany and Denmark in the north to Italy and Spain in the south, the sentiment is much the same.

Voters are comparing Clinton - who is 46, of the post-World-War-II generation, a saxophone player, and who opposed the Vietnam war as a college student - with their own leaders, many of whom have been in power for most of the past decade, and feel a heightened desire for fresh faces in politics. A host of familiar faces

French President Francois Mitterrand, whose second seven-year term runs into 1995, was already a government minister in the immediate post-World-War-II period. To eventually replace him, his Socialist Party has already dubbed former prime minister Michel Rocard its "virtual candidate."

And on the right, two old hands - former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing and former prime minister and Mitterrand opponent Jacques Chirac - are already dueling to again carry the conservative mantle in the next presidential election.

"Giscard, Chirac, Rocard - they're all names we've had around for ages," says Ms. Jounent, "and we're not through with them yet."

For many in France, it is not just Clinton's youth that strikes them as the reason he was able to reach the presidency from the position of a relative unknown.

"It's not so much a question of Clinton's age as it is his newness that is interesting," says Pauline Benoit, a Paris mother of two. "The French are disgusted with the same old leadership and feel a need for someone new."

"We don't have anything like the primary system in the US that begins with many names no one's heard," says Dominique Lemasson, a currency trader with a major French bank whose work required her to keep a close watch on the US presidential campaign.

"Here, everything is done within the parties. I, as an average voter, haven't a word to say about it," she says. "And the parties are dominated by the same politicians."

Yet despite an admiration for America's choice of a young leader, many of these same French voices acknowledge feeling cautionary sentiments that would probably discourage the arrival to power of a similar fresh face in France.

"In the US it's better accepted that the young take on positions of high responsibility. But in our old Europe responsibility still rhymes with age," Mrs. Lemasson says. The value of older leaders

The French do not retain a particularly favorable memory of either of two bold innovations in leadership under Mr. Mitterrand: a then-38-year-old Laurent Fabius being named prime minister in 1984, and Edith Cresson as the country's first woman prime minister in 1990.

"The problem with someone new is that he can promise things he hasn't been tested on yet, which by the way is apparently what Clinton did," says Mrs. Benoit, who adds that she would have voted for George Bush were she American. "With the inexperienced you don't know what you're getting."

Still, surveys show that the French, were they in Americans' shoes, would have voted heavily for Clinton. Young French, the left-leaning, and ecologists all massively favored Clinton, says political scientist Stephane Rozes, whose CSA Institute carried out several polls.

For the French, who were particularly struck by images of last year's Los Angeles riots, Clinton represents the possibility of an improved American social model and curtailment of laissez-faire economics, Mr. Rozes says.

"Clinton represents a signal that the extreme free-market economics of Madame Thatcher and Ronald Reagan have lost their steam," Mr. Perrineau says. "For the French, who saw even their own political left tilting in that direction, it's reassuring."

Despite the interest in the "new" leadership of Clinton, however, his arrival is unlikely to cause repercussions in upcoming French elections, Perrineau says.

"The die is pretty well cast for the March legislative elections," he says. "A desire for someone new might have some impact in a future presidential contest, but for that we'll have to wait and see."