Enter the Old Guard

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For most of his nearly three-year stint as France's Prime Minister, Socialist Lionel Jospin distinguished himself as an efficient, reform-minded playmaker whose game relied on finesse and innovation. His style stressed team performance--both his government's and the nation's--over personal achievements. Following his first major cabinet shuffle last week, however, Jospin looked more like a skittish manager ordering an all-out defensive strategy and ruling out any risky runs to push much needed reforms. Jospin, it now seems, has only one strategy: to run down the clock to his expected bid for the presidency in 2002. If so, the French economy will lose two more years in the long-running struggle to implement the structural reforms necessary if France is to remain competitive in the global economy.

The shuffle was precipitated by protests in France's public sector, which has swollen to over 20% of the workforce but represents an even larger percentage of the leftist majority's voter base. The wave of strikes and demonstrations gave ammunition to critics within Jospin's governing coalition that the reform effort had gone too far, too fast. The resulting dismissal of the government's four most controversial members--including personal friend and former Education Minister Claude Allègre--created the unavoidable impression that Jospin wants to distance himself from the reforms his associates had championed, even though they were policies the Prime Minister himself had endorsed.

Further signs that Jospin had adopted a more conservative game plan came with his cabinet appointments of Socialists closely associated with the late François Mitterrand, including former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius as Finance and Economics Minister and former culture czar Jack Lang to replace Allègre. The message to voters and members of Jospin's majority was one of deference to traditional leftist policies and personalities. "The left gained power in 1997 on a platform of reform, gender parity, and renewal of faces and ideas," says Pascal Perrineau, director of the Center for the Study of French Political Life. "This shuffle finds reform blocked, the new faces dismissed or passed over, the percentage of women ministers reduced, and a return of the dominant figures of the Mitterrand era. The old is new again."

Jospin defended his shuffle as a necessary airing out of the cabinet, and called it "a change in--not of--the government." He also vowed to "continue reforming." But the reforms have been sputtering since November, when the widely respected, modernizing Finance Minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was forced to resign when he became the target of a corruption inquiry. His departure seemed to encourage resistance from civil service unions. Indeed, Strauss-Kahn's successor, Christian Sautter, was last month forced by Jospin into a humiliating withdrawal of his tax processing reform after collectors staged a nationwide strike to protest against the changes.

At the same time, Allègre--an internationally respected academic recruited as an outsider to "slim down the behemoth" of France's bloated and gridlocked educational system--was offered up as a sacrifice to appease angry teachers and their unions for applying the same reforms Jospin had sought to institute as Education Minister in 1992. "Here is an expert without any political career of his own to worry about, brought in to reform a decaying system he knows by heart," says Perrineau. "That ideal opportunity for reform created problems for Jospin's own political ambitions, and was terminated with the appointment of Jack Lang to restore harmony and calm. Indeed, this cabinet embodies a campaign strategy more than it does an agenda for governing a country wanting change."

It also represents a mending of Socialist fences awaiting the 2002 campaign. In a previous tour as Education Minister in 1992, Lang swiftly repealed contentious reforms introduced by his predecessor--Jospin--which were virtually identical to those proposed by Allègre. The still-popular Lang will help Jospin win back old guard Socialists within his majority while soothing piqued teachers, parents, and unions.

Fabius is a one-time Socialist wunderkind, who in 1984 became France's youngest Prime Minister. His career, however, was nearly ruined by a scandal over HIV-tainted blood. Until recently, he has waged factional warfare with Jospin, but has now been fully rehabilitated via last week's political reconciliation. Fabius, however, has recently championed such restructuring measures as across-the-board tax cuts, increased use of incentives like stock options, reform of the pension system and resumption of privatization. Jospin may let him try out some of those ideas, but it will be at Fabius' peril alone. Should Fabius actually venture reform and succeed, Jospin could claim victory for the government--and thereby enhance his own image. Should Fabius' attempts at such reforms fail, the Prime Minister could then pin the blame on his former nemesis, denouncing them as misguided personal initiatives.

Despite that, the shuffle does not bode well for a reform movement that must reduce the scale and cost of the public sector. Continued robust economic growth may permit the Jospin team to postpone further some of the difficult changes it seemed ready to enact. But two years is a long time for a passive government to dodge all of the shots which will be taken at it. Still, with the conservative opposition in disarray, a stalling game may seem too safe for Jospin to pass up. The question then will be whether a public looking to Jospin as a Prime Minister committed to change will reward him with the presidency on the strength of what will amount to a scoreless draw.