The humiliation of Lionel Jospin

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's defeat in the first round of France's presidential election on Sunday was a political disaster for the French left and a final humiliation for a respected but unloved leader, who is profiled here by Dave Clark.

Five years after taking over the reigns of government, Lionel Jospin saw his hopes of taking the top job in French politics dashed for a second time - prompting his imminent retirement and stunning his supporters.

He was eliminated in a spectacular upset by far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who qualified for a place in the presidential two-candidate run-off by coming in second in the first round vote behind incumbent conservative Jacques Chirac.

"If the estimations are correct, it's a thunderbolt," Jospin said, standing stiffly at a podium in his campaign headquarters, showing flashes of the anger that has undermined attempts to win the affection of the electorate.

"This result, after five years of work in government that was entirely dedicated to the service of our country is profoundly disappointing for me and those who have joined me in this action," he said.

While he assumed responsability for the defeat he said he remained proud of the work he has achieved.

That there will be no leftwinger in the second round presidential run-off for the first time in 30 years and that Jospin and the candidates drawn from parties in his leftwing coalition polled just 25 percent two months ahead of legislative elections was disaster enough.

But for Jospin to have been beaten by Le Pen, a 73-year-old extreme right demagogue who has been widely branded a racist and reviled for his hardline views, was the final humiliation.

Le Pen has brushed up his act in recent years, toning down the most controversial parts of his rhetoric and seeking support among eurosceptics and victims of crime beyond his own constituency. But the blame for Jospin's defeat falls mainly on his own shoulders.

He has proved unable to win the hearts of the voters despite overseeing a series of popular reforms, such as a cut in the working week and the introduction of the euro, as well as fall in unemployment. His election campaign was widely seen as badly judged.

In battling Chirac for the centre ground, Jospin lost much of his leftwing support base to the extreme left, which won a record 10 percent of the vote Sunday.

In the end, faced with eight more candidates on the left, he was unable to generate enough steam behind his lacklustre campaign which he initially described as "not Socialist" before verring leftwards in the closing stages.

All this despite maintaining consistently high approval ratings throughout his five-year term and being for a long time the favourite in opinion polls to unseat Chirac, whop now seems assured of reelection.

Even Jospin's supporters admit he was a poor campaigner, happiest discussing the detail of policy but hopeless at conveying the inspirational enthusiasm the French expect from the man who will symbolise their state.

"His programme is honest, but he just doesn't work people up. When you are going for the presidency, there has to be a bit of romance, a dream, something to get the public going," warned Socialist former foreign minister Roland Dumas before Sunday's vote.

Born into a middle-class family in the Paris suburb of Meudon in 1937, Jospin comes from France's small Protestant minority - a community with a reputation for diligent austerity.

In 1963 he went to the forcing-ground of the French elite, the National Administration School (ENA) in Paris, and it was here that he became a Trotskyist. Inducted into the Internationalist Communist Organisation (OCI) he took the codename Comrade Michel.

This came back to haunt him as prime minister, not because he had been on the revolutionary left - which in 1960s France was not unusual - but because he later lied about it. He has still not denied claims that he fed information to the OCI after joining Francois Mitterrand's Socialists in 1971.

Successively Socialist Party secretary and education minister, Jospin came to be identified in the early 1990s with a current in the party that was critical of Mitterrand's last years as president - tainted by charges of corruption and political dishonesty - and as a result he was chosen as candidate to run against Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac in 1995.

He went down to a creditable defeat, which he avenged two years later, following Chirac's disastrous dissolution of the National Assembly, by leading the left to victory in a general election and becoming prime minister.

April 2002. ©AFP

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