As victory cries go, it was less than rousing: "This is not a return to grace," French Socialist official Jean-Christophe Cambadélis said last week, "but rather the end of disgrace." Given his party's dramatic gains in the first round of balloting for French regional councils, you might have expected a bit more bravado. After all, it was the Socialists' first big win in two humiliating, ineffective years. But Cambadélis and his colleagues know their victory has little to do with any surge in the party's electoral appeal and a lot to do with rising public disdain for the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (ump) of conservative President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. "This isn't a vote for the Socialists," says political commentator Alain Duhamel. "It's an expression of discontent with the liberal policies of the government."
This spring is shaping up to be the ump's season of discontent. A French public that has tossed out the last two governments because of their reform programs has for more than a year now been growling its displeasure over Raffarin's belt-tightening regime. Last May public sector workers including transport workers, civil servants and teachers took to the streets to protest pension reforms, and during the summer performing-arts workers shut down arts festivals in a battle over unemployment benefits that's still going on. Thousands of scientists and researchers have marched against reduced funding, and last week some 3,500 firefighters staged a demo to dramatize their call for the right to retire at 50.
And now the angry hordes are getting to vote. First-round regional voting on March 21 was followed by run-off contests early this week in which the Socialists looked set to do at least as well the first time around. When the voting is finally over, Raffarin may not have the clout to mount his promised assault on France's beloved but money-leaking social-security and health-insurance schemes. Arguing that reform must find a "fair balance between collective assistance and individual responsibility" in financing health costs, Raffarin has warned that "another four years of doing nothing risks increasing the service's deficit to €100 billion."
No matter how the final vote breaks down, a major government shake-up now seems certain, with the most controversial cabinet members getting the boot. Education Minister Luc Ferry is vulnerable for mishandling controversial school reform, Health Minister Jean-François Mattei is dogged by his slow response to the heat wave that caused 15,000 deaths last August, and gaffe-prone Ecology and Sustainable Development Minister Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin is also ripe for sacking.
All of which may be too little, too late. While the ump repeatedly urged voters not to confuse regional campaigning with a referendum on reform, 42% of first-round voters said their ballots were cast in anger at the government. That hurt ump candidates with close governmental ties and earned Raffarin a personal rebuke: voters in his conservative-controlled home region of Poitou-Charentes massively backed a leftist list headed by Ségolène Royal, Socialist leader François Hollande's partner. After initially looking stunned by the results, Raffarin rebounded with some defiant stump speeches meant to get across the message that reform is vital and will continue.
That message isn't going over very well. While the French have felt the sting of modest labor reform (some employees must work longer before full pensions kick in; one public holiday was eliminated to help finance care for the aged), there has been no gain so far in terms of more vigorous growth, lower unemployment or blossoming consumer or business confidence. With growth in 2003 under 1%, a budget deficit shredding E.U. limits and a jobless figure hovering around 9.8%, the government has little to boast about beyond its law-and-order record. "Fighting crime and insecurity is obviously necessary," warns ump parliamentary president Jean-Louis Debré, "but that's not enough when insecurity is now synonymous to many of our citizens with rural decay, company delocalization and unemployment."
The government assures voters that it has no plans to tear down France's complex web of social protections. To prove the point, Chirac might be tempted to cut Raffarin loose. The Prime Minister, after all, is now viewed by some as the embodiment of an austere, decentralizing and threatening ideology. As Debré has noted, even conservatives believe that providing services and social protection is part of the state's responsibility to the public. Ironically, the only thing protecting Raffarin's job is the fact that high-profile Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy whose record as a relentless crime fighter has made him the star of the government is his only credible replacement. "Chirac won't fire Raffarin unless there's no other choice," says Duhamel. "Sarkozy's economic and social objectives would require far deeper reform and shrinking of the state than Raffarin's. He's precisely the man capable of driving millions more French voters into the arms of the Socialists."
Given that, Chirac may see no option but to stick with Raffarin regardless of the regional outcome and assuage voter anger by sacrificing other unpopular cabinet members. But since conservative reform itself appears to be the source of public vexation, a few sacrificial lambs won't change much. And Raffarin will have little option but to push on with reform, in hopes that the economy comes back to life before the Socialists do.