The surprise triumph of the broad-based alliance of Socialists, Communists and greens in this month's parliamentary election has led to speculation about the French voters' inconsistency. True, four years ago, they dumped these same Socialists, then mired in financial scandal and incapable of offering plausible solutions to France's chronic joblessness, and in 1995 even gave a new lease of life to the centre-right majority by electing the gaullist Jacques Chirac as president. But it is doubtful if the incumbency factor alone is responsible for the electoral verdict.
Indeed, blame for the repudiation of the Conservatives has to be laid squarely upon the shoulders of their leaders who ignored their promises of social justice and id precious little to heal the infamous "fracture social" denounced by Chirac during his presidential campaign. By voting for the left coalition led by Socialist Lionel Jospin-who has promised to cut unemployment, reduce the working week to 35 hours and stall unpopular reforms such as privatisation of utilities-the French have shown that they are anything but inconsistent.
On the contrary, for the last 20 years they have been consistently voting for growth, employment and preservation of their unique and generous social welfare system. It's the politicians who, faced with the imperatives of European integration and economic challenges of globalisation conveniently forgot their electoral promises and imposed austerity measures without explaining their about-face to the electorate. Will the Jospin government be any different?
The Socialist campaign has raised tremendous expectations, although unlike in the past, it was a low-key and cautious affair, with Jospin constantly stressing upon the need to promise only what can be delivered. " We will do what we said we would," his lieutenants said in victory speeches. Moreover, as the socialists do not have an absolute majority-in spite of increasing their strength in Parliament almost four-fold from 63 to 243-they will be under considerable pressure from their allies to implement sooner rather than later their common electoral manifesto.
The Communists have already driven a hard bargain for the participation of three Communist ministers in the government and have forced Jospin to include in his maiden speech in Parliament-scheduled for June 17-concrete measures such as an immediate increase in minimum wage creation of 350,000 jobs in the public sector and modalities for an eventual reduction of the work week without loss of salary.
It now remains to be seen what repercussions such spending-based recovery policies are likely to have on the planned introduction of a single European currency. Although the Socialists are committed to European integration as enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty, which they helped formulate and finalise in 1991 under the leadership of Francois Mitterrand, they are convinced that "if fulfilling the Maastricht criteria requires imposing still another austerity cure, the country simply can't accept it, economically and socially", as Lionel Jospin affirmed in an interview.
He has been advocating relaxation of financial criteria for the introduction of the Euro and recourse to the Keynesian model of deficit spending in order to spur growth and employment. Such a shift is likely to delay the Euro's launch and jeopardise Franco-German collaboration, the cornerstone of European integration.
Much of the post-election uncertainty stems from the perspective of a difficult cohabitation between a gaullist president and a Socialist prime minister. The French Constitution does precisely define the roles of the two heads of the executive in case of ideological opposition: the president keeps the upper hand on defence and foreign policy while the governments views prevail on the domestic front. But Chirac finds himself in a most unenviable position, having none but himself and his advisers to blame for the debacle in an election held a year before schedule. In order to regain some of his lost presidential authority, will he not be tempted to combat left-inspired legislation?
At the same time, both Chirac and Jospin know that their long-term interests lie in a successful cohabitation, given the growing clout of the extreme right national Front, which is seen by as much as 15 per cent of the electorate as an alternative to the mainstream politicians. So much so that coming months will determine not only France's economic fate but also the very survival of the Fifth Republic.