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.

 

‘On the First You Choose…’

There is a basic rule of French electioneering: In the first round, when an absolute majority is required to get elected, voters can express their true preference. This time there were two special circumstances. First, the polls shifted successively in two opposite directions and then were proved wrong. Second, the two men presented as the main protagonists, Edouard Balladur and Jacques Chirac, belonged not to the same coalition but to the same party, the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic.

The respectable French right is composed of two broad families: one relatively liberal and free-trading, with former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing as a prime example; the other, more nationalist, dirigiste and authoritarian, brilliantly illustrated by General de Gaulle. But the frontier between the two has been vanishing. De Gaulle’s successor, Georges Pompidou, the teacher turned banker, was already a crossbreed, and our two contenders, who met while members of his staff in 1962, are less Gaullist than Pompidoliens. Indeed, the haughty Balladur, financially cautious and eager privatizer, was so little Gaullist that his election to the presidency was expected in Paris to be followed by the merger of the two branches of the French right into a Conservative Party on the British model. In 1993, after the sweeping victory of the right in the parliamentary elections, Chirac handed the prime minister’s job to his "friend" so as to prepare himself to run for the presidency. Balladur got intoxicated by the repeated message of the oracle. By February of this year–with all the polls attesting to his popularity–election as President seemed a formality. Poor old Chirac, deserted by friends, was reduced to the polling limbo of the low two figures.

Chirac, however, was not a man to give up. This was his third attempt to become President and, at 62, his last chance. Though a pure product of the French factory of high-level technocrats, the National School of Administration (E.N.A.), he has a long political past: twice prime minister, leader of his party and mayor of Paris since 1977. He cannot be accused of clinging to principles: He had been against European integration, then for Maastricht; for a French version of British Laborism, then for Reaganomics. Nor can he be accused of sticking to his own views: He was Pompidou’s servant and then spokesman for a series of gurus, Balladur being the latest. But he is also an indefatigable activist, combining the skills of a technocrat with those of a Tammany Hall politician.

This time, Chirac showed both shrewdness and resilience. He sensed that the French, like the Italians, were not resigned but incensed. For months he trekked across the country proclaiming that unemployment was the root of evil, France was falling to pieces and he was the man to save it. One could not help smiling as the mayor who had presided over real estate speculation in Paris suddenly discovered the power to requisition housing to protect the homeless; the politician who as prime minister had abolished the wealth tax now paraded as a champion of social justice. But it worked. The oracles reversed their verdict: Balladur was the loser. This was the moment when the bandwagon-jumpers sighed, "We have betrayed in vain"; and when both sides hurled insults at each other, daggers drawn. The right thought it could afford the luxury of a bitter inner struggle because it had assumed the Socialists would be unable to recover for a long time.

Lionel and the Left. Lionel Jospin, though not the first choice of the Socialists, proved a wise one. Bespectacled and white-haired, he still looks youthful at 57. Though not very charismatic at first, he warmed up and gained in stature from week to week. A Protestant, he had a solid reputation for personal honesty, quite an asset these days. A product of E.N.A. like Chirac, he had left a cushy job in the foreign service to teach economics in a technological college. A leftist, opposed to the Algerian war in his youth, he joined Mitterrand’s Socialist Party in 1972, and rose under his auspices. He was handed the leadership of the party nine years later, when Mitterrand was elected President, and kept it till 1988, when he became minister of education. In the past three years, out of office, he has maintained a certain distance.

The ghost of Mitterrand was hovering over this campaign. Jospin clearly tried to dissociate himself from his former mentor, to whom he paid homage only in his last important speech. From the Mitterrand heritage he tried to take the good (five weeks of holiday with pay, abolition of the death penalty) and reject the bad (unemployment and corruption). He endorsed the party’s conversion to capitalism in 1983, while questioning the tyranny of money, which seems its logical sequel. He advocated Keynesian measures to prime the economy, though those might clash with the deflationary policy dictated by the search for a common European currency under the Maastricht Treaty, which he staunchly defended.

Overall he is for reforms that do not clash with the logic of the system and in this he may not accurately represent the mood prevailing on the left. His excellent showing in the first round concealed a real voter shift. If you add the 8.8 percent captured by the Communist Party, which, under the new leadership of the rather likable Robert Hue is staging a slight recovery, the striking 5 percent of the Trotskyist Arlette Laguiller and the 3.3 percent of the radical Green Dominique Voynet, the resulting 17 percent is close to the 23.3 percent Jospin scored. Especially at the last moment, when polls suggested the duel might be limited to the right, many leftists switched to Jospin. (The disputed point at many a dinner table was, Should we give the Socialists a lesson or help them to stay in the race?)

I am not arguing that a radical alternative has emerged to the left of the Socialist Party. However pleasant it was to see the Sports Palace of Paris filled with red flags and a youthful crowd chanting "Ce n’est qu’un debut," a vote for Laguiller was essentially a protest. Hue’s campaign showed that something is stirring within the C.P., not that it has been transformed. And though Voynet may have made a greater effort to seek a new vision, she did not take off. Neither collectively nor individually did these left candidates provide a project for coherent action within the new international context. Their vote reflected an expectation, a mood, about which you probably did not find much in the American press.

You probably heard more about the 20 percent of voters at the other extreme. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s 15 percent, a less than 1 percent gain over the 1988 first-round elections, would not have been so significant if Philippe de Villiers, who preaches xenophobia with a more aristocratic accent than Le Pen, had not gathered nearly another 5 percent.

Here we have all the elements for the climax of the first round. On April 23, the first round of balloting, France was stunned. The voters had dared to defy the pollsters. The oracle had said, Chirac first, Jospin and Balladur fighting it out for second. In fact, Jospin came first, Chirac scraped through with 21 percent and Balladur was right behind with 19 percent. It mattered little that overall the right was dominant or that in 1988 Mitterrand garnered 11 percent more than Jospin did this year. Jospin entered the second round as the winner.

 

‘On the Second You Eliminate…’

In the second round the candidate’s objective is to mobilize as many people as possible against the opponent. On the left, switching votes to the Socialist standard-bearer in the name of "republican discipline" is a habit, so Jospin’s task was easier. Chirac had first to mend the family quarrel and then see whether he could recover a good part of Le Pen’s electorate. Finally, the two front-runners were to meet in a television debate.

Family Reunion. The Bagatelle, a park within the Bois de Boulogne, is quite far from the Metro. The crowd coming out of the underground was neither proletarian nor posh, like the surrounding district; it was in between. Nearly 30,000 gathered in a huge prefabricated structure set on the lawn. The most fascinating sight was the row of V.I.P.s on the dais. It had taken days of fierce bargaining to stage the reunion. Now all were here: Balladur next to Philippe Seguin, the populist president of the National Assembly; the highly "European" Simone Veil not far from the anti-Maastricht-mongering de Villiers. Having checked their daggers in the cloakroom, they posed awkwardly fop the family picture designed to prove that the respectable right was reunited. This backdrop was indispensable for the star of the show.

The applause reached a pitch as Chirac, tall and handsome, went to the rostrum and spoke with monotonous grandiloquence. He denied there was a split between left and right, yet spent most of his time attacking "socialism." He claimed Jospin would tax "small savers," which he knew was untrue. He was ambiguous on the European Union and vague on the economy, though he listed all the interests that would benefit from his victory. He duly emphasized the need for controls on immigration, for law and order as well as French grandeur. It was easy to see what made the man’s strength, and his weakness. He could say anything and its opposite with the same air of apparent candor and conviction. I guessed that a battered and bewildered France might give in to the advances of this stubborn salesman.

As he spoke, I could not help recalling the lines of La Fontaine’s fable "The Bat and the Two Weasels": "I am a bird, look at my wings…. I am a mouse, long live the rats." Chirac, however, had to do more. He not only had to reconcile the pro- and anti-Europeans, the monetarists and the dirigistes within his own divided family. He also had to convince Le Pen’s electorate that what they hated most was "a third Socialist term"

Darkness at Noon. Trying to dominate the streets of Paris on May Day, Le Pen brought in supporters from all over France. More than 15,000 came. and the usual crew-cut thugs were lost in a crowd of middle-class militants yelling variations on the theme "La France aux Francais." The real danger begins when your butcher and your apparently decent neighbor are driven mad enough to vote for a party that boasts of its intention to deport 3 million foreigners and whose racist hatred of aliens carries the smell of death. In February, at the start of the campaign, militants putting up posters for the Front shot dead a young black in Marseilles. This time, in Paris, three skinhead marchers hurled a young Moroccan to his death in the Seine.

This crime was not yet known at midday at Le Pen’s rally in front of the Paris Opera. Everything was ready for the climax: Joan of Arc with medieval knights on horse in front of the platform and the usual passage from Verdi’s Nabucco on the loudspeakers as the leader climbed the rostrum. His opening was spoiled by a huge streamer–"Down with racism! Down with fascism!"–descending from the roof of the opera. This did not faze the rabble-rouser. He first took over St. Joan. He then tried to annex May Day; after all, if exit polls are to be trusted, his party came in first of all among the unemployed and the workers. He then proceeded with a roll call of the towns and regions where he won and it sounded quite alarming. Le Pen’s strongholds are no longer limited to southern cities like Nice and Marseilles. He is consolidating his position in the industrial suburbs of northern and eastern cities ravaged by the economic crisis.

But the crowd had come to hear that the reign of the foreigners would soon be over and to be told how it should vote. Le Pen spent most of his time attacking Chirac, responsible not only for the misfortunes of farmers, workers and craftsmen but also for the growth of immigration and the sin of abortion. He devoted but a moment to Jospin, naturally evil since he is a Socialist. He then added, "Chirac–it’s Jospin, only worse," a hint for militants that a Jospin victory would suit the party. To ask his right-wing electorate to cast such a "revolutionary" vote would have been too much, so Le Pen left it with a free choice. To sustain the suspense, he reserved his own decision until after the television debate between the two contenders. The indignation over the racist murder, however, deprived him, if only temporarily, of the initiative, and his official choice to vote for neither came as an anticlimax. (First estimates suggest that fewer than 20 percent of Le Pen’s followers voted for Jospin; the rest were equally divided between Chirac and abstention.)

Pulling Punches. A confrontation between the two contenders in front of millions of viewers is, since 1974, a crucial part of the French electoral ritual. This time the television debate proved a great bore. The actors were good, knew their lines, spoke well and avoided every trap. Yet it was a flop because there was no tension, no real passion. Both men had adopted "change" as their motto. Both also wanted to alter things so that they would remain fundamentally the same. They jointly accepted the framework of existing society.

Within that framework, they begged to differ. While Chirac waffled, Jospin made concrete proposals: He would reduce the presidential mandate from seven to five years; cut the workweek from thirty-nine to thirty-seven hours without a reduction in pay; and stop privatization. In all this he was opposed by Chirac, who was now less the populist and more the champion of private enterprise. But Jospin, who did not utter the word socialism, at no point presented his reforms as part of his vision of a different society, It was like a polite confrontation between two competent accountants.

The restraint was conscious, part of a strategy. For Chirac, assured by the pollsters of an advantage, the problem was to avoid a clash, which might revive his reputation as an adventurer. For Jospin, it was to appear as a man ripe for the presidency, on this or on the next occasion. Fighting only for a draw, Jospin may have lost his last opportunity. But speaking in front of 20,000 people in Paris and twice that number in Toulouse, a determined, confident Jospin sounded as if he believed in his promise of victory. As Chirac showed signs of panic, reviving the idea of a referendum on Europe to win some de Villiers and Le Pen votes, all sorts of rumors began to spread. The trend was clearly leftward, but the movement failed to defeat the arithmetic.

 

‘When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won’

So it’s back to normal. The oracles finally got it right. The Mitterrand interlude is over. The right has the control of all the commanding heights. Chirac and the patronat may tolerate some wage increases for a while, but soon the drive toward a common European currency and the dictation of the international financial establishment will impose their logic. The French will then discover the true nature of Chirac’s populism.

Among Socialists the satisfaction of having done so unexpectedly well is still outweighed by disappointment. They really believed in the miracle. In defeat, however, there is one consolation. A victory of the left would have put to the test the possibility, at this stage, of carrying out a moderate Keynesian policy of expansion within a European Union dominated by the Maastricht Treaty, and to do so through incentives from above, without mass mobilization of the people. A second disenchantment would have had disastrous results. The left can now use the delay to invent democratic procedures to facilitate such pressure from below and devise a project attractive enough for the reforms to spread beyond France’s borders.

But time is short. This election has revealed the explosive depth of popular discontent. If unemployment persists, the gap between rich and poor widens, the welfare system crumbles and the left provides no outlet, someone else will. History is never re-enacted in the same costumes according to the same scenario, but, pace Marx, it does not have to repeat itself as farce. Le Pen, as the murder of the young Moroccan reminds us, is far from farcical.