Friday, June 03, 2005

A New Broom

When I began writing this blog I did not have the intention of detailing the political intrigues of France. The system remains quite obscure to me as I try to decipher newspaper articles outlining the various goings-on and conflicts between parties and between individual politicians. However, at least I now know what the various party acronyms stand for and that when a statement is said to come from 'Matignon' it means it was the Prime Minister's annoucement and that when it comes from 'Elysee' it was the President who uttered forth. There is, however, an interesting social conflict going on in France at the moment and it has a lot to do with what has been happening in the UK. French commentators are constantly looking across 'La Manche' to the UK and jealously noting the low rates of unemployment and economic growth displayed by the UK.

The fact of a president and a prime minister governing side-by-side is a first complication. The President and the Prime Minister do not have to be of the same political party. When they are not of the same party, this is referred to as cohabitation. At the moment France has Jacques Chirac as President with a mandate of five years until 2007. During his period in office the President is almost untouchable with immunity from prosecution against any crimes he may have committed in his earlier political career. Chirac is a conservative, two times former prime minister when with the UMP conservatives. As President he is the leading political force in the country and he is able to select a prime minister who will carry out his agenda.

On Tuesday, with the resounding defeat of the European Constitution still ringing in his ears, the president decided to take a new broom to the current cabinet of governement. Jean-Pierre Raffarin, former Prime Minister, leaves office somewhat under a cloud. He will be remembered for his government's introduction of laws to decentralise power to the regions, reforms on pensions and on healthcare to keep the Secu (National health service) away from the black hole towards which it has been edging. His poor management of the results of the Canicule heat wave in 2003, however, marked the start of his unpopularity with the public, which was impounded by the bungled efforts to enforce a day of work on a public holiday (Le Lundi de pentecote).

His successor will be Dominique de Villepin, to whom has been ascribed the job of tackling unemployment which remains very high in France. Villepin is a rather suave character with a mane of white hair. He is referred to as the last of Chirac's faithful supporters, someone who will continue with the current policy of remaining faithful to the 'social pact', that is to say, not adopting an 'ultraliberal' stance based on the anglo-saxon model. This makes both him and the President the declared enemy of Nicolas Sarkozy, a self-made man who does not belong to the political aristocracy and who's power base now includes the jobs of Minister for the Interior (responsible for all policing), president of the UMP and of the council for the Paris region, an unprecedent power base for the most ambitious man in France. Sarkozy is seen by many as France's answer to Tony Blair. The difference is, he issues from the right.

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