Chirac's Gallic Gamble

Snap Election: Early Polling Dates Will Test France's Readiness For A Common Currency.

April 25, 1997

ALTHOUGH FRANCE's unemployment rate has hit an appalling post-war record high of 12.8 percent, President Jacques Chirac has chosen this moment to call a snap parliamentary election on May 25 and June 1 -- a month after Britain goes to the polls. In both countries, European Union issues stand at the heart of political controversy, with Mr. Chirac determined to join with Germany in launching a common European currency and Britain's two main parties pandering to Euroskeptic "Union Jack" tendencies.

Mr. Chirac, whose presidential term runs until 2002, is gambling that French voters will return his center-right coalition with a mandate to take the austerity measures needed to qualify for membership in a monetary union. The goal is a deficit under 3 percent of domestic national product. This will require spending cuts that run counter to popular sentiment for a more robust economic growth policy.

Fortunately for President Chirac, the Socialist opposition is wobbly at best and tempted toward the jingoistic anti-European stance of the French far right. He is trying to avoid a mandatory election next March when the currency selection process will be at the crunch stage.

While chances remain high that Germany and France will hold true to the "European imperative" by submerging the mark, the franc and other currencies into a "euro" competitive to the dollar and the yen, there are no illusions about Britain. Both ruling Tories and resurgent Laborites have promised British voters there will be a national referendum before any government dares to join in a common European currency. Earliest prospective date: 2002, three years behind the Franco-German goal.

The fact is that European integration remains fairly strong on the continent despite high unemployment, while Britain sticks by its traditional policy of trying to influence Europe without fully joining it. Despite the Chunnel, the English Channel remains as wide as ever.

Pub Date: 4/25/97

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