TCS Daily


Ra-ra Raffarin

By Jeremy Slater - April 1, 2004 12:00 AM

It was like the massacre of St Barthomlew's Day, when cohorts of bloodthirsty Catholic soldiers, egged on by King Henri IV of France, slaughtered thousands of innocent Protestant Huguenots. Well, maybe it doesn't quite match the lowest point of a particularly unpleasant period of French history, but the results of last weekend's local elections in France are certainly being seen that way by members of the right-wing UMP party, whose local deputies were massacred at the polls.

The reason for the voters' anger was a persistently sluggish economy and an unpopular package of reforms that the two-year-old government led by Jean-Pierre Raffarin had been trying to force through in order to do something about it. In other words, voters are upset about being sick but they don't like the medicine. The proposed changes include a reduction in the numbers of civil servants, an increase in the hours worked on average every week and cuts in taxes and spending.

Naturally, the UMP's efforts to change the way France works have been met by strong resistance from public service trade unions... and from a lot of the public itself. It seems that they like how France operates at the moment, and in some ways who can blame them? Public health care is generous, as are most pension plans. Very few French people choose to stay in the workforce after the age of 50 or 55. The problem is the country can't maintain the public spending needed to pay for these comforts.

The good news for those who believe reform is essential is that President Jacques Chirac has not been panicked into guillotining his prime minister. In a meeting this week Raffarin offered his resignation, but he was asked to stay on. Chirac, whose political future also rests on the UMP maintaining its popularity, did bid adieu to Francis Mer, the finance minister, who will be replaced by the popular interior chief Nicolas Sarkozy. Despite the warning from voters, however, word is the president and prime minister did not discuss a possible U-turn on their reforms. They are going to stay the course.

It would be surprisingly courageous if they did this, and it would also be politically smart, regardless of what the numbers say. In the early 1980s, across the English Channel, the reforming Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was deeply unpopular in the polls and was being savagely beaten by the opposition Labour party in local elections. Many of the reasons for this may seem familiar to Raffarin. Even though voters realized there was a need for some changes in the way the trade unions operated and understood that the economy was in bad shape they were happy with the high level of state spending on health, education and pensions. They were used to the benefits created by the consensual politics after the Second World War and were damned if they were going to give them up easily. Hence near catastrophic poll ratings for the newly elected prime minister and her party.

Add to the reforming zeal of the Conservatives a deep recession that was creating record post-war high levels of unemployment and there were plenty of reasons to see why people wanted Thatcher to go. Of course, this was ambrosia to a woman who seemed determined to fight. At the 1980 party conference and at the depths of this difficult period for Britain and the Tories she famously replied to the suggestion of a policy U-turn: "You turn if you want, but this lady is not."

Three years later the Tories held onto power with an even higher majority in the House of Commons and a routed opposition. The economy was doing much better, standards of living had risen and Thatcher could appeal to the British people that it really was time for reform. In the next four years she trounced the trade unions, became the first European prime minister to start the privatization process and rolled out her policy of selling public housing off to its rent-paying residents.

So, perhaps Raffarin and his cohorts can take some solace that their cause is not completely lost. Should I also point out that Thatcher's victory was helped by victory in war? Now that is a policy change the present French government may find hard to follow.


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