After 14 years of President Francois Mitterrand’s rule, French voters will choose a new occupant for the Elysee Palace today, ushering in what they expect will be a new era with either conservative Jacques Chirac or Socialist Lionel Jospin.
Pollsters say the race for the seven-year presidential term remains very close, with Chirac appearing to have a slight edge. But the race has been characterized by widespread voter disenchantment with both candidates, and the winner will be under pressure early on to raise wages, provide jobs for France’s 3.3 million unemployed and halt the general decline in the country’s quality of life.
A Chirac victory would give conservatives full control of the levers of power in France. Having won firm control of the lawmaking National Assembly in 1993, the conservatives then would have the presidency as well, heralding what some analysts believe would be a sharp rightward turn in politics.
A Jospin victory, on the other hand, would throw the political scene into turmoil. Jospin has said he would dissolve the National Assembly and call new elections, hoping for a Socialist victory there. If he didn’t get that legislative victory, Jospin would be forced to choose a conservative prime minister, and the resulting “cohabitation” would make it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out his domestic agenda.
The 40 million registered voters are facing a choice between two members of the political Establishment.
Jospin, a 57-year-old former professor with curly white hair and rimless glasses, took over the reins of the Socialist Party when Mitterrand was elected in 1981, and he later served as education minister.
Chirac, mayor of Paris for the past 18 years, is a tall, flamboyant 62-year-old former prime minister who twice has run unsuccessfully for president.
Although at opposing ends of the ideological spectrum, both candidates have campaigned on a platform of change, trying to cast themselves as fresh faces on the political scene.
And yet, in a way, both are incumbents, representing parties and policies of the left and right which have contributed to the 12.3 percent unemployment rate and the recent rash of political corruption scandals.