The New Statesman Profile - Lionel Jospin

The French prime minister, once dismissed as an old left dinosaur, waits to avenge himself on the Th

Play back, if you will, the picture of Tony Blair leaping astride a bicycle in Amsterdam, during a vital European summit, and pedalling furiously to the finish line ahead of fellow government leaders. The Dutch hosts have programmed it as a light moment, but one head of government is visibly embarrassed. He can barely bring himself to mount the bike thrust upon him. Lionel Jospin, France's prime minister, is a bit stiff when it comes to having a lark. The finish line he aims for is squarely political. On your marks, then, you champions of the new left. Jospin is out to show that the old one can still come first.

Between them, Jospin and Blair represent two competing sides - extremes almost - of social democracy. As Blair's new Labour braces itself for a general election, so Jospin's government of the "plural left" faces a stiff electoral test in early March that will set the stage for his run at the French presidency next year.

There was a time when Jospin brooded and smarted at being depicted as a relic of the old left. That was when Blair and Germany's Gerhard Schroder were making waves with Third Way and Neue Mitte ideas, brimful of free-market liberalism of a kind the Frenchman could not and would not identify with. Nothing personal but, as a man of stiff ideological backbone, he couldn't really understand those of more supple vertebrae. What further irked him was that Blair seemed eager to export his ideas around Europe.

Jospin broods no more. Things, he concludes, have swung back his way. His orthodox socialist strategy seems to work. His wary maxim has taken hold: "Yes to the market economy, no to a market society." As the world economic climate turns cloudy, nowhere is consumer confidence higher than in France. His country is still pushing ahead economically, as Germany and others - all users, note, of the same currency - loiter.

So perhaps the infuriating "modernness" with which the more youthful Blair and Schroder confronted him was not all it was cracked up to be. Jospin, aged 63, has been in power roughly as long as Blair, and it is now inventory time. To him, experience has shown that the marriage of left-wing values and pro-business strategy is flawed. After a while, one or the other has to give; the strain is bound to tell. Any decent marriage counsellor, he believes, would have directed it to the divorce courts from the start.

The Frenchman is not "old left" in the erstwhile, pre-Jag John Prescott sense. He is of the intellectual, Marxist-weaned school that has long shaped French left-wing thinking at the top. In that sense, he is an ideologue. The down-to-earth, hand-grabbing style in which he is currently hopping between France's country burghs, towns and cities, campaigning in support of left-wing mayoral candidates in the March municipal elections, is no more typical of this man than was prancing before the public on a Dutch bicycle. But he has a twin purpose here: to anchor himself in voters' minds as a tireless social reformer and to work up the charisma he will need to oust the conservative Jacques Chirac from the presidency.

Each goal contains an element of illusion. French voters tend to place him a lot closer to the centre than he himself does, which should not really bother him. And most seem to have concluded, alas, that he hasn't a lot of native charisma to work up. Able, courageous, professional, honest, yes - these attributes he has in abundance. In a France ridden with political-financial scandals, they give him a sustained popularity that no other premier of the past half-century can match.

But warm? Sympathetic? Ideally, the French want a touch of the soil in their leaders, some authentic provincial rootage. Yet, try as you will, it is hard to picture Jospin feeling at home anywhere else but stalking around Paris's Left Bank after an art-house film.

To situate Jospin in power terms, you have to peer into his peculiarly stressful relationship with Chirac. He is, in his own words, "the most powerful prime minister of the Fifth Republic". This is because Chirac has become its weakest president, a misfortune he brought on himself. Chirac foolishly dissolved a conservative-dominated parliament after just two years in office and let the left come surging back into government with Jospin, the Socialist Party leader, at its head. That meant cohabitation at the summit of the republic. It has proved a catastrophe for Chirac. Not only are French conservatives still in deeper disarray than William Hague's kind - they stand to lose the "unlosable" conservative bastion of Paris to the left in the municipal poll - but the size of the French presidency, supposedly the overarching power in the land, has shrunk in grandeur and authority from XL to small. If it can be restored, it will take a new incumbent to do it.

For almost four years now, Prime Minister Jospin has governed his own way, backed by an original leftist creation of his own invention. The "plural left", allying his Socialist Party with the still-kicking Communists and the Greens, has proved a curiously manoeuvrable vehicle. Jospin is in unchallenged command, deftly catering to diminished Communist pride and curbing unrulier Green ambitions. As other Socialist heavyweights have for one reason or another dropped out of his government - Dominique Strauss-Kahn from Finance, Martine Aubry from Social Affairs, Jean-Pierre Chevenement from Interior - he stands alone at the helm. The only would-be rival in his cabinet is the cool centrist Laurent Fabius, an ex-prime minister now at Finance. But Fabius is keeping his head down, for Jospin is as prickly as a cactus when anyone tries to put one over on him or take his ground.

With the battle for the presidency wickedly under way, Chirac is bent on destabilising the prime minister, attempting to shift blame his way for everything from mad-cow blight to urban insecurity. The conservative president's latest ploy is to use his schedule- setting prerogative in cabinet (the president presides over the weekly cabinet meeting) to stand in the way of one of Jospin's more daring reforms, political autonomy for the Mediterranean island of Corsica.

But for each Chirac dart, Jospin delivers a pikestaff of a retort. Only in foreign policy does the premier appear to stand back. His reticence follows an official visit to Israel last year, when he was stoned by Palestinian crowds who felt he had expressed undue bias in Israel's favour. He seemed badly shaken by the experience.

Appearances are no light matter to Jospin. Thrust into cohabitation from the start, he at once mused on how Chirac himself, as prime minister in similar circumstances, had taken to walking a step or so behind Francois Mitterrand, the Socialist president. "Me, never," he decided.

Jospin's concern over this sort of thing reflects an innate discomfort. With his slightly strained, edgy voice, he is no inspirational orator. Born into a family of Protestant academics in a well-to-do western suburb of Paris, he took to left-wing policy-making while still at ENA, the grande ecole that trains France's top civil servants. He is a pure product of the Socialist Party's policy tribe. Although he held diplomatic rank at the French foreign ministry and taught as a professor of economics, his true passion was pounding out party policies and compromises between rival factions. He has always thrived on fierce all-night bargaining sessions with left-wing pals of like intellectual weight. Touchingly, as prime minister, he still writes out any important speech he needs to make in his own, precise hand. Not for him the speechwriter's draft and computer printout.

In the early Seventies, a decade before Mitterrand led the Socialists to power, Jospin was the party's national secretary responsible for training. Then things livened up. When Mitterrand was elected president in 1981, he was made first secretary of the party, its day-to-day boss. Never having been close to Mitterrand, or remotely one of his cronies, ultimately proved a blessing, for as the Socialist father figure's reputation grew increasingly sullied towards the end, so Honest Lionel's grew in integrity. The education minister's job that fell to him in 1988 fitted him well.

The tension in Jospin seems dispelled only when his elegant wife, Sylviane, a university philosophy teacher, is around. He seems aglow in her presence, as if flattered by her combination of good looks and brainpower. It is she who pushed her husband to enact the plural left's parity law, a recent reform that obliges all political parties to field an identical number of male and female candidates in national elections.

But this is a blip beside more resounding left-wing initiatives that Jospin has taken: the famous 35-hour working week; a major fall in what appeared to be unshakeably high unemployment (admittedly only to 9 per cent, well above the British level); continuing improvements in social benefits; the reduction of France's presidential term from seven years to five to help avoid the dead-end of cohabitation; a turnaround of justice aimed at ensuring that defendants really are innocent until proven guilty; the ground-breaking home rule proposition for unruly Corsica; legal wedlock of a kind for gay couples - all these combined with a lively economy, which has got where it is without Jospin fawning on capitalist enterprise.

It is not that he stands in the way of business or efficient privatisation - simply that he maintains an old-left distrust of capitalism. "We make a distinction between the market economy and capitalism," he says. "Capitalism remains a system that generates inequality, waste and often domination. It needs to be regulated, to be socially contained." It falls in nicely with the old French urge to regulate.

There is not much chance, then, that Jospin will fall for schemes such as privatising the French railways, or the Paris Metro. Indeed, he now takes grim delight in avenging himself on the Third Way politics that once had him marked as a dinosaur of the left. The Blair strategy, he affirmed recently to his troops, is a British concept that "is not exportable".

Still, there is something that Jospin would love to borrow from Blair, and the Frenchman's top aides make frequent trips to London to familiarise themselves with it. Blair's talent for grooming his personality is the object of their keenest interest. Jospin admires new Labour's prince for his art of communication. Don't expect the Frenchman to go pedalling no-handed down the Champs-Elysees, but as the climax of his political career draws near, a little help with how to put himself over is one lesson he won't reject.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Please, sir, we girls want some more