An Agile French Leader Losing His Balance

The current high school students' protest could presage a difficult autumn for French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, as the French come down from a summer-long euphoria induced by their victory in the soccer World Cup last July.

The students' discontent with their schools boiled over just as Paris bus drivers and subway staff were ending a series of strikes. They had been protesting increasing gang violence and demanding better protection.

Meanwhile, unemployment is still running at 11.8 percent - the highest rate among the leading European economies - and is showing no sign of falling. Therein lies Mr. Jospin's greatest fear.

The Socialist leader had been hoping that a slow but steady recovery of the French economy, visible since the spring as consumer confidence and spending went up, would create jobs. But the world financial crisis - which has wiped all this year's gains off the Paris stock market - has blown a chill wind over those hopes.

The government has scaled down its economic-growth forecast for next year to 2.7 percent, and that could prove optimistic.

If so, social tensions could burst into the open again, as they did earlier this year when unemployed people staged month-long protests to demand job-creation policies and higher benefits.

At the same time Jospin, who heads the government, may find his relations with conservative President Jacques Chirac cooling.

So far, their "co-habitation" has gone smoothly, but this is in large part because Mr. Chirac's authority was badly dented by his miscalculated decision last year to call early elections. His conservative allies lost that vote, paving the way for Jospin's rise to power.

Chirac has been recovering his confidence recently, however, and in the run-up to European parliamentary elections next June he is expected to play the role of opposition leader more overtly.

Since he took office last year, Jospin has proved exceptionally agile at defusing potential crises. But the coming months could test his political skills even further, especially if the public mood sours.

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