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Will he, won't he?

Posted by Helen Saturday, January 08, 2005

L’empereur Jacques has spoken. Well, sort of. He has had his New Year receptions for government officials on Monday, business and labour leaders on Tuesday, diplomats on Wednesday, top military on Thursday and the press on Friday.

In all these receptions he mused, as French politicians are wont to do, on France, its position, his own position and many other things of that nature. For some reason he gave out that France was doing reas well economically and in every other respect. Most other commentators have noted a barely-existent growth, high unemployment and a somewhat invidious position both within the EU, where France is fighting desperately to restore her erstwhile influence and outside it, where les Anglo-Saxes appear to be winning.

Unemployment, he explained grandly, was the top priority for the nation and for him. Rather cynically, one must assume that the most urgent question of unemployment is his own, particularly as it might also involve a possible appearance in court, charged with various financial peccadillos. The next President may not be so generous as to issue an all-embracing pardon in order to save Jacques Chirac, particularly if the next President is Nicolas Sarkozy.

Chirac has spoken of cutting taxes for companies and eliminating taxes on minimum-wge workers. He has promised easy access for small loans for the poor. The whole programme has infuriated some of the left and union leaders have confirmed that big strikes are due in the weeks to come: railway workers and civil servants in the third week of January, then post office workers and teachers.

The referendum on the Constitution is expected to be called in the late spring or early summer. That seemed like a good idea when the Socialist Party had voted narrowly to campaign for a yes vote. With strikes unrolling through the winter and, possibly, spring the decision may have to be changed and the vote postponed.

On other matters, l’empereur also spoke grandly. He wants to see a speedy creation of the EU Rapid Reaction Force units to deal with disasters like the tsunami, though there seems to be no need for them. Presumably, he is not going to call on EU troops to help him in the ever deepening quagmire of the Ivory Coast, where there are 5,000 French troops.

He has called again for debt cancellation but, naturellement, did not suggest any serious changes in the iniquitous CAP and trade policies. Debt cancellation, on the other hand, might help some of his rather unsavoury friends among African leaders.

However, it was his plans for the next ten years that made everybody prick their ears up. Chirac has announced that the government will promote large-scale industrial projects, an idea that has not been in political circulation since the seventies. Already €2 billion ($2.6 billion, £1.4 billion) over the next threee years have been promised in subsidy. Two things are unclear: where is the money to come from and will the Commission allow such a blatant undermining of the single market. We can disregard the notion that this money will be available to any European firm that cares to apply. That is not what Chirac means by large-scale industrial projects. And the money? With low growth and tax cuts? Can the man add up?

Then came the really important comment:

“The conditions are now fulfiled to deploy a project for France for the next 10 years.”
As a statement of political and economic intentions, this is meaningless. But its real purpose was to start a discussion that Chirac might run for another presidential term in 2007, scuppering Sarkozy’s chances.

Will this work? There has been a mixed reaction. Most commentators see the statement as a dig at Sarkozy, who is expected to respond next week. Others, such as La Libération rather bitterly complained that Chirac seems to want an endless reign, having achieved nothing so far. I must say, that is unkind and inaccurate. He has managed to stay out of prison and keep his friends out. Is that not achievement enough?

There is another consideration: Chirac is 72. By 2007 he will be 75. Will he be able to conduct another gruelling election campaign? Will people want to vote for someone of that age? And if he does win, with the socialists once more, perhaps, in disarray, will he able to carry on for the required five years? Sarkozy may yet have the last laugh.