French Parties Take Cue From Blair, Clinton in Election Tactics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Labour Party's sweeping victory in last week's British elections has set off cheers among both conservatives and Socialists in France.

Both sides, competing in elections for parliament, see Tony Blair's victory as a harbinger of their own success.

For the Socialists, Labour's win marks a rejection of 18 years of conservative politics in Britain. "This signals a real success for the European left," says Socialist leader Lionel Jospin.

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France's ruling conservatives argue that the key to Labour's success was its swing to the right. "French Socialists haven't changed, they've learned no lessons from the past," French Prime Minister Alain Jupp told a magazine after the Blair win.

Political tactics are becoming more crucial for the French elections, which will be held in two rounds: May 24 and June 1. The vote will be close, according to a poll released yesterday, with 36 percent of voters not sure of their choice.

This election is seen as critical for Europe's drive for economic and political unity. Conservatives, made up of the Gaullist Rally for the Republic and its partner, the Union for French Democracy, currently hold an 80 percent majority in the National Assembly.

To win, they have taken a cue from both the Blair campaign as well as the 1996 Clinton campaign: Claim center ground, even and especially if it means occupying opposition turf.

One conservative political strategist says the coalition's platform has been put together like the horoscope in a women's magazine. "There's something nice there for every sign," he says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

For the first round of voting, "we want bring on board as wide a group as possible," he says. For the second round, "we'll pull out the argument that if the Socialists come back to power, immigrants will flood the country," he adds.

He says a conservative proposal last fall to curb immigration was deliberately designed to provoke street protests by Paris intellectuals and Socialists - and gain support outside Paris where the defense of immigrants is not popular.

The conservatives have also borrowed a number of Socialist themes, including a shorter work week, more women in politics, universal medical coverage, state funding of school lunches, and closure of the institute that trains top civil servants - which many voters blame for an elitist tone in French public life.

Last week, conservatives also took up Socialist demands that Italy be included in the first round of European states adopting a single currency. On Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Herv de Charette said he backed Italy's bid to join the single currency this year and chided the European Commission for being "too severe."

SOCIALIST leaders, like Bob Dole in last year's US presidential vote, find themselves on the defensive early in the campaign. The conservatives are "seasoning their program with spices they found in our proposals," complains Socialist Party spokesman Francois Hollande.

Socialists are scrambling to differentiate themselves from conservatives, with whom they share virtually identical positions on the need for a single currency in Europe, while forging alliances with ecologists, Communists, and other left-wing voters.

But deep divisions persist between Socialists and former Communist partners over issues such as budget cuts to meet criteria for Europe's single currency. Socialist leaders negotiated agreements on European unity, which Communists say have contributed to workers' economic woes.

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