Dispatch from Toulouse, 8 July 1999

David G. Novick

The coalition-left government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin is enjoying enormous success, despite the occasional scandal that might have toppled a less popular leader. He has, to some extent, adopted the Clintonian tactic of preempting centrist issues, such as privatizing virtually all remaining state-owned businesses. This includes, most recently, the Credit Lyonnais, the state-owned bank that was so poorly run that a couple of years ago it was costing billions for French taxpayers and had a net value of zero. Its most recent advertising slogan is "We owe you a new bank." The chief scandal involves police malfeasance in Corsica. In the wake of the assassination of the prefect for Corsica, the government had appointed a new prefect, Bernard Bonnet, to rule with an iron fist. His apparent mandate was to catch the killers, to jail Corsican separatist terrorists (which probably amounted to the same thing), and to crack down on Corsica's legendary rampant corruption. Needless to say, Bonnet was not particularly popular. Then, this spring, he himself was arrested and jailed when a team of special-forces police, directly under his command, were quite clearly traced as having burned down a waterfront restaurant. The police had tried to make it look like a terrorist attack, but the circumstances were that the restaurant was illegally operating and was supposed to have been torn down, and the police apparently decided to take matters into their own hands. One of the police officers suffered burn injuries during the arson, and they'd left easily traceable police equipment on the premises. The police commanders say that Bonnet ordered the arson, and he vigorously denies it. So far, no government minister has been implicated but the matter remains under investigation.

Left-wing parties in France did very well in the recent elections for the European parliament, bucking a trend elsewhere in Europe toward centrist retrenchment. Jospin's Socialist Party was by far the biggest winner. Another interesting result was the remarkable success of the Green party, whose campaign was led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, known in the May, 1968, "events" as Danny-the-Red (partly from his politics and mostly because of his hair). Cohn-Bendit was born in Montauban, about 25 miles up the road from Toulouse, of German refugee parents. He was expelled from France in 1968 by the conservative government, and has lived most of his life since in Germany, where he found political success as a Green. Under the election laws for the European parliament, you can stand for election in any EC country no matter which EC country you come from. So Danny-le-Rouge became Danny-le-Vert. He led a refreshing campaign of real honesty, clear ideas, and in-depth dialogue. He was an easy person to talk with. He never wore a tie, and his usual flannel shirt looked like the rumpled thing a real person might wear, as opposed to the over-pressed, almost formal flannel shirts affected by American politicians on the stump in, say, Iowa. His campaign had some setbacks, such as when members of the reactionary, ruralist hunters' party blocked his visit to one city, and when he was pelted with fruit by angry nuclear-power workers with whom he had come to try to establish a dialogue. But his efforts paid off, and in the elections the Green party emerged as the second-most popular party of the left, overtaking their coalition partner, the French Communist Party.

In contrast, the right is in total disarray. The so-called "Alliance" of center-right parties, established in the wake of their humiliating rejection when Jospin was elected to power, has completely fallen apart. Indeed, it would be hard to say that the Alliance ever really got off the ground. To give you some of flavor of their ineptness, the day after the Alliance was announced the principal French police-officers' union of the same name said they would sue for infringement. The nominally Gaullist party of President Jacques Chirac, currently known as Rally for the Republic, has gone through three party presidents in two years, is currently leaderless, and did miserably in the European elections. An anti-European faction of the RPR did somewhat better, much to Chirac's discomfiture; they now lay claim to be De Gaulle's true heirs. And, actually, a pro-European non-Chirac faction did comparatively well, too. Despite repeated TV appearances from the Presidential palace during the Kosovo crisis, Chirac is being portrayed in France's media as irrelevant, sort of padding about with nothing to do. Aside from those who represent strong pro- or anti-Europeanism, the French right seems devoid of ideas, particularly on issues of growth, employment and the environment. The best news is that the ultra-right-wing xenophobic National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen split in two in an ugly power struggle between Le Pen and his apparent successor, Bruno Megret. Le Pen's vote was much lower than usual, and Megret's party didn't even make the five-percent level needed to qualify for election funds. The Megret branch is now virtually bankrupt, and Le Pen is evidently in full decline. Some of their voters went over to the hunters' party (technically the Hunting-Fishing-Outdoors-and-Tradition Party), which espouses militantly nostalgic policies while avoiding the crude nativism of Le Pen and Megret.

Aside from the ex-prefect of Corsica, the other controversial figure in France at the moment is Richard Virenque, a professional bicycle racer who had been expelled from the Tour de France last year when his team's trainer had been intercepted while driving a car loaded with drugs. Virenque, although excessively cocky, had been one of France's most popular riders and had repeatedly won the title of "best climber" in the Tour de France. Virenque has steadfastly maintained that he has never done anything wrong, an attitude that is lampooned, to great popularity, on a nightly satirical puppet show. Virenque, portrayed as a dim wit with a whiny voice, claims that any drug use was "a l'insu de mon plein gre," i.e., outside his free will. The puppet-Virenque is continually being attacked by syringes that have been improbably disguised, and when a mosquito bites him the insect rockets off at high speed leaving a contrail. The real Virenque is competing in this year's Tour de France, and he is not currently among the leaders. The Credit Lyonnais is the most prominent of the Tour's sponsors, by the way.

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DGN, July 8, 1999
Copyright 1999 David G. Novick