Commentary: The French Right Should Dump Chirac

For France's conservatives, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that their beleaguered leader, President Jacques Chirac, could still win reelection next year. But that's also the bad news. Five more years of Chirac is the last thing the French right needs. So here's a radical proposal: French conservatives should find a new candidate next year, end Chirac's leadership of the right, and reinvent conservative politics in one of Europe's most important countries.

O.K., the power brokers in France's smoke-filled rooms probably aren't going to heed an American reporter. But even die-hard Chirac fans must own up to the damage he has done to France's conservatives. Consider how far the right has fallen since Chirac, 68, became President in 1995. The conservatives lost their parliamentary majority after an over-confident Chirac called a snap election in 1997. That handed control of the government to Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who is gearing up to run against Chirac. Polls show Jospin would win by 7 or 8 points if the election were held now.

A fresh disaster looms in municipal elections on Mar. 11 and 18. Voters, angry over alleged corruption during the conservatives' 24-year leadership of Paris city hall, are likely to elect Socialist Bertrand Delanoe as mayor. Rightist mayoral candidates in longtime conservative bastions such as Lyon and Toulouse also are in danger. Because mayors' local organizations play a key role in national politics, such losses would further erode the right's chances in parliamentary and presidential elections in the summer of 2002.

Chirac doesn't bear all the blame for this mess--but he bears a lot. The President is a central figure in the corruption scandal engulfing his party, Rally for the Republic (RPR). Former RPR fundraisers have alleged that Chirac oversaw the collection of kickbacks when he was mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995. Chirac, who is immune from prosecution while in office, has yet to offer a convincing response.

The conservatives should choose another candidate--and fast. That may sound outlandish, since Chirac for all his flaws is a far better campaigner than the bland Jospin. And the right has no credible alternative to Chirac, because he has marginalized other conservative voices to ensure his dominance. "Chirac hurts us, but he's untouchable," laments an ally of Philippe Seguin, the rightist mayoral candidate in Paris.

In contrast with Chirac's ironhanded ways, Socialist rival Jospin has skillfully held together a coalition that includes Communists and Greens as well as pro-market centrists such as Finance Minister Laurent Fabius. There has been a cost: In sharing power with left-leaning Socialists such as former Labor Minister Martine Aubry, Jospin has shied away from needed economic reforms while pursuing business-unfriendly legislation such as a minimum 35-hour workweek. But the left is united and almost certain to retain control of parliament next year. And in France it's the Prime Minister and parliament, not the popularly elected President, who run domestic policy.

KILLED OFF? The conservatives' path is far more difficult. The three main right-of-center parties, the RPR, the Union for French Democracy (UDF), and the Liberal Democracy (DL) party, have wasted years squabbling among themselves. Alain Madelin of the DL and Francois Bayrou of the UDF both want to run for President next year, but polls show that even many in their own parties don't think they should challenge Chirac. That's a shame, because both have interesting ideas for modernizing the economy and lightening the burden of the welfare state. Chirac says he favors such reforms, but he hasn't encouraged the kind of lively debate that could attract more support to the right. "We have killed off the life, the energy, in our political system," laments Michel Gurfinkiel, editor of the pro-market magazine Valeurs Actuelles.

It might sound crazy for the right to reject Chirac, who now looks like its best hope for winning the presidency in an uphill battle. But a Chirac victory would almost surely condemn conservatives to five more years as helpless onlookers. If they could set aside their differences and rally around another candidate--almost any other candidate--conservatives might reinvigorate themselves and repair their credibility with voters.

By Carol Matlack

Matlack covers French politics and business from Paris.

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