Disaffected Voters Send a Strong Message to French Politicians

Prime minister stepped down yesterday after his party is hammered at polls.

Early elections were supposed to give France's conservative government a "new lan" and five more years to put the nation's economic house in order.

Instead, the government that came into Sunday's vote with an 80 percent majority in the National Assembly and a solid lead in the polls now will be struggling to salvage a victory in June 1 runoff elections.

Yesterday, Alain Jupp said that he would resign as prime minister to help boost conservative prospects. "We need a new team, led by a new prime minister," he said. Mr. Jupp is widely blamed for raising taxes and long-term unemployment. He has been the most unpopular prime minister since opinion polls have been keeping records.

The vote was also a rebuff to President Jacques Chirac, who last week insisted that France's credibility in the world would be jeopardized if voters did not return a conservative majority to the National Assembly. If opposition parties win next Sunday's vote, Mr. Chirac will have to govern with a Socialist prime minister.

Last Sunday's vote also calls into question France's leadership on the big European questions of the day, such as a move toward a single European currency.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who had encouraged Chirac to call early elections, counts on France's support to keep the standards high for countries to join a single European currency next year. French Socialists say they want to ease conditions for entry and insist that Italy be included in the first group of qualifiers.

The president's Rally for the Republic party and its coalition partner, the Union for French Democracy, won 31 percent of the vote in the May 25 election; parties on the left won 40 percent. But the poll also sent a message to all mainstream political parties that voters have deep doubts about whether any party can solve France's No. 1 problem: an unemployment rate of 12.8 percent - and climbing.

A new study on jobs by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released this week cited France as an example of how not to create jobs. "Those countries that followed OECD recommendations, such as cutting taxes and the minimum wage, have succeeded in bringing down structural unemployment; those that did not, such as France, went backwards. Delay only makes the problems worse," said an OECD official.

A record 31.5 percent of French voters declined to vote in Sunday's legislative elections. A record 43 percent that did show up at the polls voted for marginal or protest parties.

Both conservative and opposition leaders are now in the hunt for these disaffected voters. Conservatives promised to explain more clearly to the French people how a new conservative government would change their daily lives. Socialists promised to reach out and form a grand coalition on the left.

The wild card in Round 2 for all parties is the position of the far-right National Front party, which scored its best total ever with 15 percent of the vote. National Front candidates were the top vote getters in seven French cities - including Nice, Cannes, Marseilles, and Vitrolles - and ranked No. 2 in more than 60 other races. While unlikely to win more than two or three seats in next Sunday's runoff, the National Front is in a position to tilt the election to either camp.

"The National Front has thrived on France's social and political crisis. Since Jacques Chirac was elected president [in 1995], the political crisis has intensified with large numbers of corruption cases, and we've surpassed all records of unemployment. This dynamic puts the National Front in the heart of this election," says Pascal Perrineau, director of the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life.

The National Front promises to solve the unemployment crisis by deporting immigrants who live in France.

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