'The Government Can't Do Everything'

photo: jacques melac wine restaurant

The period of the grape harvest opens in Paris at
Jacques Melac's wine-bistro.

Jospin 'Truth' Statement Unwelcome

Paris:- Sunday, 19. September 1999:- Near the end of August or at the beginning of September, French political parties hold 'summer university' sessions. These are political meetings for the party faithful, and they are usually informal as well as being held at some warm location.

With the summer 'news-hole,' these meetings get good newspaper and TV-news coverage; but there is usually little hard news.

Then, in mid-September, party leaders are put on TV-news to give the public some general notion of their party's strategy for the coming political season.

About ten days before Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's TV appearance on last Monday's France-2's primetime evening news, the Michelin tire company announced record profits - and its plan to lay off 7500 workers.

This was welcome news to the world's financial markets - profits up, costs going down. However, the surprise news was not welcome to Michelin's employees worldwide. In France, the company's action was severely criticized, especially in Clermont-Ferrand, Michelin's home town.

On Monday, TV-news wanted to know what the Prime Minister and the government was going 'to do' about it.

France got another shock when the Prime Minister - after expressing his shock - said that people shouldn't wait for the government to do something.

Although Mr. Jospin had plenty of air-time and was prepared to answer the question in advance, his phrasing left the French confused. He added that the layoffs were not yet done; that the outcome could be other than what people imagined.

Michelin made capital markets happy, while ruiningphoto: resto la fee des herbes its labor relations - which it didn't have to do. With the size of Michelin's payroll, more than 7500 workers will probably leave the firm voluntarily over the three-year period announced by the company.

Bistro 'La Fée des Herbes' is left out of nearby harvest.

In fact, if the company's plan is successful - increased productivity, lower unit costs - it will create a net gain in employees over three years. But this is a mystery to its PR department.

The Prime Minister did suggest that Michelin's employees and its customers could 'do something,' without spelling out exactly what.

Here, French news organizations fumbled the ball - by not having the wit to translate the Prime Minister's simple phrase of 'do it yourself' into 'boycott Michelin products.'

This, watching those same financial markets, is something the Prime Minister could not say, for reasons apparently unclear to all involved.

There is a big history in France of demonstrations against injustice - the current farmer's actions are an example - but there is a void of understanding on all sides about what the bottom line represents.

Instead of dumping fresh produce on the front steps of city halls or agitating inside supermarkets, it doesn't occur to farmers to withhold their produce until wholesale prices go up.

Similarly, nobody in France has to buy imported US beef that is loaded with hormones - I'm sure France has enough home-grown beef to go around. And a lot of the French are fussy about what they eat; not everybody would run out to buy 'doctored' beef no matter how much cheaper.

But the call is always for the government 'to do' something. Lionel Jospin saying that the government 'can't do everything' was fresh news - although largely misinterpreted or denounced.

The Prime Minister also said the government couldn't 'regulate the economy' with laws and decrees. To most of the French, this was astounding news.

The RPR Turns On Its Bilge Pumps

The RPR party machine, of which President Jacques Chirac is the nominal head, has been floundering for years, while it drifts ever closer to dangerous rocks.

At one time, the president was leader of this main right-wing party, and its entire purpose was to elect or re-elect its candidate to the nation's highest office.

This was a reflection of centuries of 'top-down' rule in France. This time appears to be over - it disappearedphoto: hot dog stand, champs elysees along with François Mitterrand's presidency - but the managers and rank and file of the RPR party have been unable to grasp the implications.

Real Champs-Elysées hot dog stand differs little from nearby sculpture.

Two leaders, Philippe Seguin and Nicolas Sarkozy, have recently bailed out of the party's leadership position in frustration. Although both are very able men, they were completely unable to unite various factions of the right-wing into a common front.

But now that they have stepped aside, four or five relatively new faces have popped up to enter the contest for the party's leadership. There are some 'old' faces still around too, but these are so mired in the past that they will be condemned to stay there.

It is refreshing to see new faces. The liberals of the right-wing are not far apart from the liberals of the left wing, so new faces count for a lot. They might pronounce new ideas - like the Prime Minister's "France can't control the world economy" statement.

The RPR leadership contest has come right after the summer political meetings. The Socialists, who hold the balance of power, were content to count their government 'successes' and outline the direction of their future legislative ambitions. "We will introduce a new proposition for a law," is useful but not exciting.

'New faces' trying to craft a 'raison d'être' for a future RPR is another matter. One candidate has said the party will no longer simply exist in order to re-elect the President of France.

After a rudderless period, President Jacques Chirac seems to be carving out a new position for the Presidency. Whatever he's doing, he is being rewarded with good standings in the polls - and now leads the Prime Minister by five points, with an approval rating of about 60 percent.

The President had to approve of the retirements of Mr. Seguin and Mr. Sarkozy - so I imagine he is just as interested in the outcome of his party's leadership contest as the French may be.

Meanwhile in Paris

The political landscape of all France is reflected in miniature in Paris. Current mayor Jean Tiberi's self-proclamation as RPR candidate for re-election has loosed off fury from his opponents in the RPR, while the Socialist opposition quietly gloats.

About once a week Le Parisien runs a feature - sometimes a double-spread on pages two and three - which is a calendar listing of all of Mr. Tiberi's coming court dates this fall.

The city's RPR machine is worried that it may be tarred byphoto: techno fans on busstop any brush which touches the mayor - so it is backpeddling to a position independent of the Hôtel de Ville. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with what the RPR is doing nationally.

However, the municipal elections are some time off - and nobody except Jean Tiberi is officially in the running for the mayor's seat. This means that any possible 'new faces' have yet to emerge.

Techno fans behaving normally in Paris yesterday.

This is a distinct disadvantage, which the Socialists are exploiting with glee. For fun, they are suggesting at least a six-pack of big-name Socialist 'elephants' as possible candidates for the mayor's office.

All of these wink and chuckle when asked if they are actively running - all saying the campaign hasn't officially started yet.

You can almost hear the grinding of teeth from behind the locked doors of secret RPR back rooms. Who will be their 'white knight?' Which Socialist 'elephant' will the 'white knight' have to face?

Whoever these two turn out to be, Parisians are going to get a chance to make a choice rather than merely rubber-stamp a decision made from the 'top-down.'

Sports News

Paris' PSG football team is leading the French number one league again, by the skin of its teeth. Either this, or it just struggled to a tie 'win,' which keeps it in close running for the leadership spot. It's one or the other.

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