Taking the biggest political gamble of his term, President Jacques Chirac on Monday night dissolved the National Assembly and asked the French to elect a new Parliament willing to impose more belt-tightening measures on an already restive nation.
“Our economy, our enterprises, employment cannot wait,” Chirac proclaimed. “France needs a new elan. This . . . can only be given by clearly expressed approval from the French people.”
Speaking to his nation on radio and television, Chirac said an official decree would be published today fixing the dates of the two-round election as May 25 and June 1. “My dear compatriots, the moment has come to express yourselves,” he said.
The reason for the early voting that he had once opposed might seem surprising, Chirac admitted. The ruling center-right coalition dominated by Chirac’s Gaullist Rally for the Republic already holds a lock on the 577-seat National Assembly, and voters had not been scheduled to choose a new Parliament until the spring of 1998, when the lawmakers’ five-year terms expire.
By moving up the election date, as France’s president is empowered to do under the constitution, Chirac was evidently trying to prevent a future political crisis rather than extinguish an ongoing one.
A new National Assembly would be able to slash public spending right away, in order to bring France’s public deficit down to the 3% of gross domestic product required by the end of this year for membership in the planned single European currency, analysts said. And the newly chosen lawmakers taking those unpopular steps would not have to face outraged voters next spring.
“Naturally, the government wants to hold elections before wielding the hatchet,” wrote Serge July in the left-wing newspaper Liberation.
Prime Minister Alain Juppe’s ministers have made no secret of the fact that pruning state spending and the ranks of government employees is among their chief priorities. Last year, France’s public deficit was 4.1% of gross domestic product, a level that would disqualify the country for membership in the club of nations issuing the new “euro” currency.
Presaging the theme of the opposition’s electoral campaign, which began on the airwaves right after Chirac’s 10-minute address, Lionel Jospin, first secretary of the Socialist Party, said the Gaullist president and his allies were getting ready for “a new step toward hard capitalism.”
Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, called Chirac’s gambit an unjustified “electoral holdup.”
Though Chirac, a former mayor of Paris who was elected head of state in May 1995, has fallen to dismally low approval ratings in the polls--31%, according to a survey published Sunday--his maneuver is expected to work because voters remain even more suspicious of the French left.
One opinion poll conducted by the conservative Le Figaro newspaper determined that center-right parties would obtain 150 seats fewer than the 473 they now hold in the assembly but that they would retain the absolute majority required to pass most legislation.
But if those estimates are off and the opposition parties won, Chirac would be forced to share power with an opposition prime minister dead-set against many of his policies.
“He is risking big, risking losing his political authority and having to face a very bad cohabitation,” noted Etienne Schweisguth, director for research at the Paris-based Study Center on French Political Life.
Since Gen. Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth French Republic in 1958, the lower house of France’s bicameral Parliament has been dissolved four times previously--by De Gaulle in 1962 and 1968 and by Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981 and 1988. But in all those cases, there was either a grave political crisis or acrimony between the president and the Parliament.