Tobacconists are fuming over his new cigarette taxes, due to rise 40% by January. Medical workers are wary of his plans to overhaul France's health-care system. Actors and stagehands, outraged by his tightening of their unemployment benefits, shut down the summer culture season. Strikes by teachers and transport employees, incensed over his plans to reform pensions, brought the country to halt in May and June. And leading members of his own party are slamming his economic and social policies for being everything from too liberal to insufficiently ambitious. But since this is France, which has so often proved itself impervious to reform, fierce opposition like that means Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin must be doing something right. He certainly thinks so. "What we've done is enormous! Enormous!" Raffarin exclaimed in an interview with Time at his office in the Hôtel Matignon in Paris' seventh arrondissement. But, he added, "We have to be attentive to the nervous nature of French society."
How nervous is France? Right now Raffarin's approval rating is 38%, the lowest point of his 16-month tenure, down from a high of 63% last December. So you might expect the Prime Minister tasked with running domestic policy while President Jacques Chirac plays diplomatic chess with George W. Bush to be feeling a little anxious himself. It's not just his popularity that's taking a beating. The French government recently announced that the economy shrank by 0.3% in the second quarter, and in August unemployment figures started creeping up again. The government is still reeling from accusations that it bungled the response to the summer's heat wave, which left nearly 15,000 dead, and it faces condemnation from the European Commission for flouting the E.U.'s ceiling on budget deficits. In the Paris media, all this bad news has been accompanied by a wave of punditry debating whether the country is sliding inexorably into insignificance. Is Raffarin the man to turn the economy around, bring unruly unions and public sector workers into line, and create what he calls "a new France in a new Europe?"
The Prime Minister, by turns jocular and combative as he juggled a rugby ball during the Time interview, betrays no doubts. The son of a politician himself, the marketing executive-turned-provincial legislator says his grass-roots mentality and everyday tastes including an unabashed admiration for French rock dinosaur Johnny Hallyday give him a common touch as Prime Minister. Of course he has an answer for all his problems. His poor ratings? "The economic situation is difficult. In France, there's always been a correlation between the popularity of the Prime Minister and the economic situation." The sputtering economy? "We'll have a pick-up hopefully in early 2004." The outrage from unions? "This seems normal when you are undertaking an important reform program." All the talk of decline? The last gasp of an enervated Parisian "nomenklatura" who "have for years been writing things that have all proved to be wrong."
But the glum state of France isn't that easily explained away, and Raffarin's
incremental approach to reform a 3% income-tax cut instead of the promised 5%; shelving vital health-insurance reform until next year may not be sufficient to the task ahead. His goals sound radical: pension reform, rationalizing the health care system, loosening labor markets, sweeping decentralization. But Raffarin is wary of risking social upheaval by moving too fast when Prime Minister Alain Juppé did so in 1995, it triggered the crisis that resulted in his government's ouster. And Raffarin's critics ignore some significant achievements. Though economic liberals and some business leaders say it doesn't go far enough, pension reform at the very least is signed and sealed. Raffarin exempted the vast number of smaller businesses in France from the strictures of the 35-hour week. Even his proposal to remove a public holiday from the national calendar to fund programs for the elderly provoked hardly a whimper of protest.
But his method of quietly forcing change leaves many longing for a clearer sense of direction. "He manages and manages and manages, but he doesn't inspire!" moans Bernard Kouchner, the flamboyant former Socialist Minister of Health. That complaint doesn't just come from the usual suspects, either. "There's no overarching unity, no clarity, no sense that it's all part of a single effort with a final goal and reason," says Jacques Bille, a communications expert and former adviser to conservative Prime Minister Raymond Barre. "There's no vision that makes people think, 'Yes, I get it.'"