The miracle did not happen. Dynamics, as Lionel Jospin had hoped, did not defeat arithmetic. On his third try, Jacques Chirac made it. The Socialist interlude is over. The right has recovered the presidency of France, and on that sunny Sunday right-wingers danced and chanted in the Place de la Concorde well into the night. Thus ended a strange election, an unexpected cliffhanger which showed that, with traditional parties losing their hold on a fast-shifting electorate and the media capable of making a name–in this case Jospin–widely recognizable within weeks, the Delphic oracles of our age, the polls, were at a loss.
But Caesar also got it wrong. Gaul is not divided into three parts. France, it may be argued, is split in two, as was shown in the second round of balloting, in which Chirac, the champion of the right, finally defeated Jospin, leader of the left. Or, based on the first ballot, France, torn apart by mass unemployment and frightened by a deregulated world, is much more fragmented than that. The left itself is divided into two parts–one moderate, the other radical–and the right into three roughly equal segments: conservative, bonapartist and semifascist. The real challenge, even for the very flexible Chirac, was to woo the votes of all three at the same time.
Nothing is really over but the counting: 53 percent for Chirac and 47 percent for Jospin. In principle, the right now has the presidency, control of both houses of Parliament and of most regional assemblies. But the new President cannot rely on a state of grace, on an initial period of euphoria. He will have to do something fast about the high expectations raised by his populist platform.
Populism is fashionable on both sides of the ocean but, whereas American populists cut taxes for the rich and social services for the poor, the French must still preach the opposite. To distinguish himself from his conservative rival in the first round, Chirac had to curse social "exclusion" as the greatest calamity and plead for higher wages both to heal social wounds and to boost production. He had to parade as a New Dealer. He now has to square this populist line with his reluctance to hurt the vested interests of the privileged.
It is an exaggeration to say that nothing is over. The Mitterrand era has indeed come to an end. Jospin’s opponents used as their main electoral slogan "fourteen years of socialism is enough," but they knew they were joking; after a year or so of fairly radical reforms, the Socialists became the orthodox keepers of the capitalist gospel. But the years of Mitterrand are over and what they did to the French left may be gathered by comparing the money market’s reaction to the "threat" of its victory. In 1981, the very prospect of Mitterrand provoked a panic–a capital flight and the need to suspend trading on all markets; in 1995, the success of Jospin in the first ballot did not produce a ripple. A Swiss banker summed it up: "We did some of our best business under the Socialists."
The campaigning is over, too, with all its twists and turns. On the left it was marked by the steady, then fast, rise of Jospin. On the right it provided material for Balzac in the naked struggle for power; but also for Moliere, as, with opinion polls swinging sharply, politicians jumped from bandwagon to bandwagon, bruising their egos in the hope of saving their careers. Yet there was grim drama behind the farce: the shadow of the xenophobic Jean-Marie Le Pen lengthening over France.
Against this background obvious questions come to mind. Who is this chameleon Chirac, this born-again populist who now inherits the considerable powers of France’s elected monarch? How will the left emerge from the Mitterrand interlude, and will it present a genuine alternative quickly enough to prevent Le Pen’s National Front from gaining further ground? With discontent growing, the smell of corruption spreading, belief in the system and its institutions declining; with populist leaders promising progress, while international bankers preach austerity, France, for all its peculiarities, is a mirror for Western Europe as it enters a period of explosive transition. Some answers may emerge as I try to reconstruct for you this strange French tale of two ballots.