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17 June 2002

Tony Blair’s surprising ally

Has the Third Way at last found a soulmate across the Channel? David Lawday reports from Paris

By David Lawday

Tony Blair seems suddenly left on his own as the political world turns right around him. Yet Blair’s increasing “isolation” is not all it appears. President Jacques Chirac, quite astonishingly master of all he surveys, is not only the luckiest Frenchman who ever engaged in politics, he seems nicely in step with the British Prime Minister.

The French left, deprived of power on all fronts, never shared Chirac’s admiration for Blairism. The socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, who has disappeared in a puff of smoke after being humiliated in his bid for the presidency, was chilly with Blair. He found him too keen a free marketeer to wear the left’s label. Chirac has quite another view: what is good, one can almost hear him repeating, is what works.

Chirac is not a modern man. How could he be, with 30 years behind him at or near the pinnacle of French power? Modern-ness and Frenchness apart, there is hardly space for a shaft of light to pass between his political perspective and Blair’s.

Chirac’s good fortune means he has not needed to present a coherent political programme (which is lucky, because he has none) to win the long-drawn-out battle of his life. His own weird re-election in May followed by a general election triumph this month – to be rounded off by a second round of voting on 16 June – will give him control of the presidency, the National Assembly, the Senate (upper house) and most provincial assemblies. The quarrelsome French right has at last united into a single force behind him, the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP).

All this seemed as laughable a proposition only a few weeks ago as that of France, the champions, being eliminated from the World Cup before things got serious. Discredited in his first term as president by forced cohabitation with Jospin’s left-wing government, pursued by judges for alleged corruption during his years as mayor of Paris, worn by office, nearing 70 years of age, Chirac was in deep water. But salvation lay in the strangest quarter. A rampant Jean-Marie Le Pen proved his lucky charm: the run-off for the presidency was no longer, as expected, Chirac against Jospin but Chirac versus Le Pen. It was no contest. It was la republique versus Lucifer. Hence the plebiscite for Chirac, with the left piling in on his side.

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To give him credit, Chirac has never swerved from total rejection of extreme-right intolerance. In the only memorable moment of the current election campaign, Chirac intervened to ban UMP candidates from consorting with the Le Pen camp against a disheartened left.

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In the event, the far-right phantom that spooked France in the presidential contest deflated in the first round of the parliamentary ballot like a fast-flattening Michelin man. The far right stands to take only one seat or so, if that, in a parliament dominated by the UMP. The president’s party could outnumber the Socialists by two to one.

Chirac’s good fortune climaxed in the one issue that has stirred voters in the parliamentary election: cohabitation. All along, the left had been hammering on the theme that electing Jospin as president and then keeping a left-wing majority in parliament would solve the cohabitation problem that has blocked French government for years and poisoned the political system. Chirac’s re-election, however peculiar, put the boot on the other foot. The left no longer had an argument. To halt the curse of cohabitation, the one solution for voters was to give the mainstream right, as Chirac requested, a “clear and coherent” majority in parliament under his command.

His selection as prime minister of the little-known Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a modest, right-of-centre provincial with the classic man-of-the-soil look that the French warm to, marks the end of cohabitation. This is precisely what the ousted left had meant to achieve – but in reverse. It had even prepared the ground for the end of cohabitation by cutting the presidential term from seven to five years, and switching the electoral calendar around to put the presidential election immediately before the legislative vote.

Chirac’s concentrated power will be aimed, for a start, at cutting crime, income tax and over-regulation, if the last is remotely possible in France. He will encourage business without much backing down on welfare.

Sound familiar? He may yet get himself into a mess. But you can bet that Chirac unbound will look closer in spirit to Blairism than France’s defeated left cared to be.