The drive to create a new Europe by the 21st century faltered badly on Sunday when French voters sent a strong message: The old Europe needs jobs and job security - now.
The win of French Socialists in the race for parliament and especially the setback for conservative President Jacques Chirac are widely seen as slowing down Europe's plan to cut spending and unite national currencies in 1999.
If Sunday's winner, Socialist leader Lionel Jospin, does put a drag on uniting Europe, it may mean the Continent will not fulfill the hope of creating a lean-and-mean economy like America's or have a single currency that can stand up to the dollar.
By calling for an election for the National Assembly 10 months early, Mr. Chirac had hoped to gain a mandate for pushing through reforms needed to meet strict economic criteria for Europe's monetary union.
Instead, France now faces the prospect of a divided government - or so-called "cohabitation" of a president and parliament from different parties - until 2002. The president's Rally for the Republic party lost 1 out of 2 of its deputies, along with an 80 percent majority with its conservative partners, the Union for French Democracy.
But behind the dramatic shift in party fortunes, the vote confirms what has been an axiom in French politics since 1981: Voters want jobs and security, and they'll vote out of power any party that can't provide them. Unlike their politicians, they also like divided government. "There was no real enthusiasm for Socialists in this vote. The key issue was to sanction the incumbents," says pollster Roland Cayrol of the Paris-based CSA polling institute.
"But even those that supported a victory of the left said that they did not believe that a new majority could solve the country's main problems," he added. Only 28 percent of those polled said they wanted Chirac to resign to avoid a new "cohabitation," according to a Sunday CSA poll.
New employment figures released yesterday show that more than 3 million French are jobless, and that unemployment remains at a record 12.8 percent. Jobs have been the No. 1 concern for voters for the last 20 years, and 70 percent in Sunday's poll cited growth and jobs and the "absolute priority" for a new Socialist government as well.
"Jobs" were also at the top of the list of those thronging the Boulevard St. Germain Sunday night to await the arrival of Socialist leader Jospin. "My son is an architect, he's completed his military service, and he still can't find a job. The Socialists promised that things would be better," said Flora Guintana, as she waited through a rainstorm to catch a glimpse of Jospin.
"The conservatives had no program, no ideas, plus they were divided and worthless," added Parisian Pierre Rotman. "The Socialists had a program that wasn't great, but at least it was something."
For Mr. Jospin, the promises will be tough to keep. France's new governing majority campaigned to create 700,000 new jobs, including half in the public sector, as well as reducing the work week from 39 to 35 hours, without cutting salaries.
Socialists say this can be done without increasing government spending or risking scuttling France's bid to join a single European currency in 1998. Socialists negotiated the European agreement that requires governments to keep deficits below 3 percent of gross domestic product, and insist that the project must go forward, albeit with new conditions.
Communist coalition partners have opposed the single currency project and the budget cuts needed to realize it. In addition, Communists are calling for an immediate increase in salaries to help boost consumption.
Jospin had hoped to be able to govern without the Communists. In directing the Socialist campaign, he aimed to revive a broad coalition on the left, with special emphasis on the Ecologist vote. He campaigned personally for Ecologist candidates, laced his stump speeches with ecology themes, and even retired the party's signature red rose color palate in favor of all-green campaign banners and leaflets.
But to reach the 289-seat threshold needed for a legislative majority, Jospin will also need the support of 38 Communist deputies.
Relations between Communists and Socialists have been strained since Communist ministers quit a Socialist government in 1984. Revelations that former President Franois Mitterrand deliberately set out to destroy the French Communist Party, once the leading party on the French left, did little to improve ties.
Jittery financial markets in France dropped 8 percent last week, in anticipation of a victory on the left, and continued its downward trend yesterday. The business daily "Les Echos" described Sunday's vote as "electoral zapping" and questioned whether "frenetic" alternation of governments wasn't becoming "the privileged way the French have chosen to refuse all change."
For France's new opposition parties on the right, the lessons of Sunday's vote may take longer to digest. Party leaders lost no time in finding scapegoats for the defeat, ranging from former Prime Minister Alain Jupp to President Chirac, who are blamed for waging an improvised campaign that lacked direction or focus.
Many conservative leaders quickly went on record for a new strategy on the right. The key issue will be how much of a place to accord the far-right National Front party in the new conservative opposition.
While winning only one seat in the new legislature, the National Front's presence in 79 runoffs was a key factor in Sunday's vote. It is now the third-largest party in France, and any bid to revive prospects on the right must take these voters into account. The National Front promises to solve the unemployment crisis by deporting immigrants who live in France.