The results of last weekend's parliamentary elections in France dealt a stunning blow, not only to President Jacques Chirac and his center-right government, but also to the expectations of his European partner, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Without a strong Franco-German base, Mr. Kohl's dream of a single European currency and the further integration of the European Union (EU) is impossible. To achieve that, he requires the partnership of a government in France that shares the German obsession with monetary discipline and budgetary restraint, as well as a commitment to making Europe more competitive in the global economy.
Kohl enjoyed 15 years of close Franco-German cooperation with Presidents Mitterrand and Chirac. He used that relationship to create a Germany deeply embedded in the democratic institutions of the West, while at the same time the economic powerhouse of a new Europe.
Neither Kohl nor Chirac should have been surprised at the election results. If they had considered the recent electoral successes of President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the conditions of Kohl's own rise to power in 1982, they should have been ready for what happened to Alain Jupp and his plans to remake France in the German image.
The successes of Mr. Clinton, Mr. Blair, and French Socialist leader Lionel Jospin are all of a set piece. They are all based on the ability to convince their electorates that each can painlessly solve the most intractable foreign and domestic problems facing their countries.
In Clinton's case, he claimed that only he could balance the budget, while protecting education, the environment, and children; make a modest cut in taxes for education and for middle-income families; and protect the entitlement programs in health care and Social Security.
Blair promised that he could continue the process of European integration while retaining Britain's "essential sovereignty," join Europe's Social Charter and still maintain Europe's best unemployment figures, and adhere to the budget of former Prime Minister John Major while protecting the very social programs that threaten to break that budget.
Mr. Jospin learned the lesson well. Facing an unemployment rate near 13 percent and voters' fears that the single currency reforms of 1999 would further damage the French economy, Jospin adopted the Clinton-Blair approach. He told French voters that unemployment could be reduced through strong government measures without hurting France's place in the global economy, that Italy and Spain could be brought into the single currency without damaging its strength, and that the problem was not the structure of France's economy but the composition of its government.
All of these electoral successes can be seen as a part of the whole. In an increasingly interdependent world, voters in the leading industrialized states want two contradictory things: They want the benefits of the global economy and the benefits of living in the most advanced states in the world; but they also want balanced budgets and a compassionate government that cushions the blows of that world economy. This is what happens when politics takes primacy over policy. And the resulting cynicism and disenchantment of the voters with government are due to this disconnect between politics and government.
Kohl should remember this well. He came to power at the end of a period that saw the election of conservative governments across the Group of Seven countries from 1979 to 1982. If he is smart, he will be prepared for a campaign next year in which his opposition learns the lessons provided by Clinton, Blair, and Jospin. Those lessons may be great for the conduct of a "politics of the middle," but they do nothing to address the long-term problems faced by all of the industrial democracies in a rapidly changing economic and social environment.
At a time when Clinton seems obsessed about his place in history and Blair talks about the "next generation of leadership," it is more than a little troubling that no leader's vision extends past the opinion polls or the electoral booth.
It is all the more disturbing when one considers that the occasion that recently brought them together was the commemoration of the Marshall Plan, a tribute to George C. Marshall, a man whose place in history was secured because he solved problems without worrying about polls.
* Daniel J. Whiteneck is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the US Air Force Academy.