Dealt a humiliating vote of no confidence by French voters, Prime Minister Alain Juppe said Monday he will step down from office even if the country returns his beleaguered center-right coalition to power.
Juppe’s desperate gesture, the first resignation tendered by a French prime minister in the thick of a political campaign, had appeared all but inevitable after the current government was swamped in the first stage of a two-round parliamentary election Sunday.
But the pledge by the former foreign minister, who is shown in polls to be the most unpopular prime minister since the Fifth French Republic was founded in 1958, may be too little, too late to save his coalition’s chances.
“If the election were held today, the left would win,” Alain Duhamel, one of France’s best-known political analysts, said.
Former Minister of Culture Jack Lang, a Socialist, called Juppe’s self-sacrifice “the sign of panic in the face of the massive, unprecedented rejection that the government got yesterday.”
In elections Sunday, Juppe’s outgoing ruling coalition won slightly less than 30 percent of the popular vote, the worst showing by the mainstream right in nearly four decades, according to official returns from the Ministry of the Interior issued Monday. The other 70 percent went to parties hostile to the government, with the biggest chunk - 23.5 percent - grabbed by the Socialists.
After discreetly calling during the afternoon on President Jacques Chirac, who is empowered by the constitution to appoint the prime minister, or head of government, Juppe made his declaration to a meeting of the joint campaign committee of his NeoGaullist Rally for the Republic party and its coalition partner, Union for French Democracy.
“Voters just sent us a serious warning,” Juppe said. Defending the record of his government, appointed May 18, 1995, and reshuffled that November, he said it was now time for “a new step, animated by a new prime minister.”
“As for me, as chief of your majority, I will carry on the combat until the end, that is to say, until the success that is within our reach. After that, I will reckon of course that my task has been completed,” said Juppe, winded after having bounded up the stairs at campaign headquarters on Paris’ Right Bank.
Juppe had become notorious for his aloof political stance in announcing austerity measures, and his propensity to then backtrack in the face of large paralyzing strikes and other signs of widespread discontent over his policy.
The balding native of the Landes pine forests of southwestern France rapidly came to epitomize the arrogant technocrat that the French, beset with nagging high unemployment and a sense that their society has come unstuck, more and more resent.
Getting rid of such a liability for the center-right was what former Prime Minister Raymond Barre, the courtly mayor of Lyon, seemed to be asking for in veiled terms earlier Monday when he said France’s new government should usher in a “profound change of heads.”
“The government of tomorrow must appear to be truly new,” Barre said.
Under the French system, the prime minister must be able to secure a majority in Parliament, but he or she - there has been one woman, Socialist Edith Cresson, in 1991-92 - customarily serves as a safety valve for the president and is sacrificed for reasons of tactical or electoral expediency. However, Chirac and Juppe, party comrades in the Neogaullist movement, formed a tandem of unprecedented closeness, and Chirac seemed stubbornly wed to his loyal protege, even when opinion polls consistently showed Juppe had become one of the most unpopular public figures in France.
Juppe’s departure will allow the center-right to make a more convincing case that their policies, if reelected, will lead to change. “If the French think France will be governed differently, they will give wider support to our majority,” former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing said Monday night.
Lang, the former Socialist minister, countered that “the French won’t be the dupes of a last-minute bluff, which consists of replacing one head by another, when what has been condemned is not a man, but a policy, a method of government and a vision of society.”
The extreme-right National Front, which received 14.94 percent of the ballots cast Sunday, was still being cagey about its tactics for the upcoming second round, which will take place Sunday. Party President JeanMarie Le Pen said Monday evening that the Front would keep 133 candidates in the running in districts where they qualified for the runoff by winning 12.5 percent of the registered vote, thus further whittling down the chance for a renewed center-right majority. Duhamel said that would be “murderous” for the outgoing government’s hopes for re-election.
Chirac, who plans to speak to the nation today, has so far given no hint of who might replace Juppe. Each candidate carries some liabilities. The apparent front-runner, former Parliament speaker Philippe Seguin, was an outspoken opponent of the 1991 Maastricht Treaty that united Europe, of a single European currency and of rapid integration of France into Europe, all policies Chirac staunchly supports. During this campaign, though, Seguin has toned down his rhetoric.
If the left wins a majority of seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, Chirac would be forced to share power with a Socialist prime minister, presumably Lionel Jospin, the party’s first secretary.
The widely unexpected result of the election caused French equity markets to plunge Monday, with the CAC40 index at the Paris Bourse dropping nearly 4 percent.