Season Of Shock

It's all but official. After a landslide presidential victory, Jacques Chirac and his conservatives can look forward to controlling the Senate and the National Assembly. The dead albatross of cohabitation will fall from his neck, and with it the paralysis that has hobbled French politics for the past five years.

Even the defeated Socialists have something to celebrate: the comeuppance of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who could have pushed the country to the reaches of xenophobia. He garnered 17 percent in the May presidential balloting, knocking out Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Yet in the parliamentary elections he dwindled to an also-ran, likely to gain no more than a couple of legislative seats--if he's lucky. The French may be shocked by the World Cup. But the republic has been saved! Time to go on vacation.

That's the bright side. The darker side is that many French seem to think the republic is in lousy shape regardless of who's in power--Chirac, the Socialists or Le Pen. Count the votes, and the winner is None of the Above. The single biggest voting bloc in France these days is nonvoters--more than 15 million people, or 36 percent of the electorate, the worst turnout since 1848. Among young people 18 to 35, the figure was a staggering 56 percent. "Vote," pleaded former Socialist Finance minister Laurent Fabius last week after the results of the first round came in. "It takes five minutes, and it will determine the next five years of your lives."

The pitiful showing speaks volumes about the delicate position Chirac is in. The swell of abstentions represents a clear protest--both against him and, more profoundly, the system. The French may be relieved at their deliverance from Le Penisme, but there's no mistaking the deep sense of disaffection. And it's hard to know what to do about it. What do the French want, or not want? Does Chirac even know, and could he do anything about it if he did, given his curiously weak mandate? In this awkward and potentially volatile situation, the president can be likened to a tightrope walker. A misstep could paralyze his government.

Consider the challenges. In the next six months alone, Chirac will have to signal his intentions on controversial issues from pension and labor reform to an overhaul of the tax code and a slumping economy--all as the autumn strike season comes up. And while doing that, he must also act decisively on the big decision facing Europe: whether, and how, to enlarge.

Begin with the home front. As for Bill Clinton in 1992, so for Jacques Chirac now: the important thing is the economy, and he'd be stupid to forget it. Growth is at a sluggish 1.9 percent--not as bad as in Germany, but a source of growing social unease. Unemployment stands at 9 percent and looks likely to grow. Major layoffs at state industries were postponed for the elections; now they'll happen. Meanwhile, public spending has gotten out of hand. Government coffers that fund the social guarantees the French have grown accustomed to are near empty.

Chirac spent much of his previous five years as president criticizing Jospin for not dealing with these problems by curbing federal spending and enacting needed reforms. Now he will have to do it--fully conscious of the dangers. After winning the presidency in 1995, Chirac tapped Alain Juppe as prime minister. But when Juppe tried to rein in spending and cut bloated social programs, he was thrown out. Two months of massive, sometimes violent protests shut down the country and prompted Chirac to call new elections, which he lost. Unions are gearing up for new negotiations, setting the stage for a similar standoff. Chirac is on record favoring tax cuts and initiatives to give businesses more flexibility in hiring and firing and setting working hours and conditions. The prospect is thus for strikes.

Meanwhile, Chirac must step back and think about Europe. Call it the trap of enlargement. France has long vied with Germany for leadership of the European Union. But taking political leadership on the Continent these days means making painful concessions at home. By the end of this year, the EU will have to decide how many new members to admit, and under what conditions. Germany wants to admit as many as possible in an expansionist "big bang." France is less convinced, especially if it means giving up its own perks.

Those perks are close to Chirac's heart. France receives more aid under the Common Agricultural Policy than any other country; its farmers eat up some 50 percent of the allotted EU budget. Eager candidate countries like Poland think they should get a chunk of this aid, and they are backed by most Eurocrats in Brussels. Chirac professes to share the dream of an ever-larger Europe, but he is also a stout friend of France's farmers. Reform the CAP and see their subsidies substantially cut? Not likely. Chirac will also be feeling pressure from Brussels on another front: France's growing budget deficit. Under EU rules, Paris is obligated to balance its books by 2004. But that will be nigh impossible if the president pushes his proposed 30 percent tax-reduction scheme. The bottom line: thanks partly to Brussels, Chirac is not a free agent. Yet many voters want him to act as if he were.

This goes to the heart of Chirac's dilemma--how to deal with the French variant of the great and growing European malaise. Whether you believe in "Europe" or not, almost everyone agrees that the Continent's politicians have grown remote and out of touch. The euro? Enlargement and ever closer union? Fine. But voters also want their leaders to assume responsibility for real issues of real concern to real people. Polls in the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and, now, France say as much. Rightly or wrongly, there's a groundswell sense that root issues such as immigration and crime must be dealt with stringently and aggressively on a national (rather than European) level.

Chirac campaigned hard on those two issues in particular, and he will almost be compelled to deliver on his promises to deal with them. But more broadly, he will be under pressure to prove he's not a slave to Brussels on a range of matters. Anatole Kaletsky, a columnist for The Times of London, writes of the "repatriation of political responsibility." If any single point emerges from the run of center-right political victories in Europe, he suggests, it's that voters want their leaders to lead, to squarely take responsibility, not only for crime and immigration but also for the economy and their jobs. Above all, they want them to ensure that their people's voices are heard, as Kaletsky puts it, "above the complacent purrings of Brussels bureaucrats."

Chirac thus finds himself torn. On one side is Brussels and ambitious visions of Europe. On the other is an inchoate and angry constituency of ambivalent voters who don't know what they want. Any move he makes could be a misstep. Chirac possesses considerable personal charm, and no little political deftness. But it will take unusual strength of leadership to both negotiate his program of reforms and give the French a sense of national direction and a vision of themselves within a larger Europe. In the end it may prove easier to dither, in the time-honored way of Europe's old elites. If that's the case, look out, France. The republic is hardly safe.