Going into June 1, it was a cliffhanger. That’s when the results of the second ballot in the two-stage French parliamentary elections were to be decided, and the suspense broken. But President Jacques Chirac had already lost his bet in the preliminary vote of May 25. He had asked the French to give him a mandate. They gave his conservative coalition 30 percent of the vote (36 percent, if lumped together with other factions of the “respectable right”). The Socialists and their associates climbed back to 27 percent. Add the Communists, whose share of the vote remained a stable 10 percent, the radical Greens and those on the extreme left, and you get a share of more than 43 percent.
The united left clearly had the edge going into the second round. To avoid disaster, Chirac was forced to attempt a mobilization of conservatives (turnout was low by French standards, at 68 percent) and to play for a good slice of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front vote. But the front itself, a disease, had also gained ground, getting 15 percent at the polls, and was able to keep candidates of its own in 133 constituencies. In desperation, Chirac sacrificed his faithful Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, and very vaguely promised change. On the eve of the vote, odds were he would have to call on the Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, to form the next government.
But while elections matter, we should not be blinded by the ballot box. The ghost haunting Europe today is not electoral. The key question at the end of this millennium is whether the so-called American model will be thrust upon Western Europe or whether, in the struggle to defend their welfare state and other social conquests, the Europeans will be driven to invent a radically different society. Unlike the triumph of Tony Blair, which offers no immediate perspective, would a victory by the French left open the way to an alternative? The answer must be, as they say here, a Norman one: yes and no.
No wonder that the problem should be raised for France. In the trial of strength over the shape of Europe the biggest confrontation, so far, took place there in the winter of 1995. The French strikers and demonstrators not only forced their government to postpone the offensive against the welfare state; they also showed that one could reject the future the establishment offered. But they did not provide an alternative project. This French winter of discontent–with its historic refusal and its inner contradiction–now casts its shadow over the election.
President Chirac learned the lesson that breaking the long-established social contract will prove tougher than was assumed. Hence, his current calculated gamble. Rather than lose a parliamentary election next year, when the effects of additional austerity measures imposed in attempts to meet the European Union’s Maastricht convergence criteria will be felt, Chirac opted for a snap election now. Should his side lose, he remains President but must cohabit with a Socialist government, a prospect the first ballot seemed to foreshadow. If he wins, he can proceed with his shock therapy–including cuts in social services–with no major electoral hurdles till 2002 (though he also learned that the main obstacles are not electoral).