France's New Leader, Chirac, Takes On 'National Tragedy'

CONSERVATIVE'S CHALLENGE

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HAVING won the job as France's next president, Jacques Chirac now must find -- and keep -- millions of jobs for others.

On his third try for France's highest office, Paris Mayor Chirac's 30 years of public service, shaking one hand after another, helped him overcome lagging early public opinion polls.

But the president-elect's first test will be with French financial markets and European partners that are looking for more than a handshake. Other European Union (EU) members are hoping that the French president can cut a 12.2 percent unemployment rate without rattling the franc or breaking France's EU commitment to cut budget deficits.

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''Our critical battle has a name: the fight against unemployment,'' Chirac said in a statement after Sunday's election, in which he won nearly 53 percent of the vote.

''The classic remedies have been tried, and new approaches, new methods are needed,'' he added. ''Before taking any action whatsoever, we need to ask ourselves, ''Is it good for employment?''

An absolute priority

France's unemployment rate, while easing slightly in the past six months, is still the highest among the Group of Seven industrial nations. Some 3 million French are unemployed, along with 2 million living on marginal state support. According to all public-opinion polls, it was the No. 1 priority of French voters -- a point candidate Chirac called early on in the campaign.

Unemployment is our ''national tragedy,'' he wrote in his 1994 book, ''A New France,'' which set the themes of his presidential campaign. ''The fight against unemployment isn't a priority among others: It's the absolute priority, to which all else must be subordinated.''

This kind of talk rattles France's European partners, especially Germany, which are looking to France to meet the terms agreed to in the Maastricht Treaty on European union. To meet these terms, France must reduce its budget deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product from a current level of 5.7 percent, as well as maintain a stable currency. Following the EU guidelines would keep Chirac from imposing some of his goals to create jobs, such as lowering taxes.

France's European commitments were barely mentioned in the debate between the two finalists last week.

But right-wing parties have used the issue to court an exceptionally large protest vote against mainstream parties, which all favor closer integration with Europe.

The leader of the ultraright-wing National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and right-wing candidate Philippe de Villiers both blasted France's EU commitments as undermining the future of the nation.

Together, they pulled nearly 20 percent of the vote in the first round of voting.

Within Chirac's own Rally for the Republic party, sharp differences persist over the priority to be assigned the fight for employment and progress toward Europe.

Prominent voices such as National Assembly President Philippe Seguin have also argued against the Maastricht accords and can be expected to have a voice in any choice between spending for jobs or deficit cuts.

While the other mainstream candidates, Socialist Lionel Jospin and Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, consistently argued for reducing budget deficits and maintaining a strong franc, candidate Chirac questioned both priorities during his campaign.

Mr. Jospin set European unity at the center of his campaign. He criticized Chirac for not being committed to EU terms, which include maintaining a strong franc.

''It wasn't me that played with the franc,'' he said in a TV debate. ''If there have been troubles on monetary markets recently, they didn't come from declarations that I would have made.''

On the eve of Sunday's vote, Chirac told the daily La Croix newspaper that he favored the possibility of calling a referendum on European unity, comments that again raised questions about the depth of his European commitments and sent the franc sliding on international markets.

The purpose of a such a referendum, timed after the next round of moves toward monetary union in 1996, would be to ''reconcile the French on Europe and with Europe,'' he said.

Soothing the EU

After both sets of remarks, foreign minister and close Chirac adviser Alain Juppe hastened to reassure markets and European partners that France's commitment to European monetary union was unwavering.

Germans are watching closely the composition of Chirac's Cabinet. Selection of Mr. Juppe as prime minister, as expected, would be taken as a welcome sign of continuity in French foreign policy. Choice of Mr. Seguin to head the government would not.

Chirac promises a meeting with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the first days after taking office, which could be as early as the end of this week. At the top of the agenda will be coordinating strategy for a European summit in June on the next steps toward union.

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