PARIS — Dealt a humiliating vote of no confidence by French voters, Prime Minister Alain Juppe said Monday that he will step down from office 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 by polls to be the most unpopular prime minister since France's Fifth 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," said Alain Duhamel, one of France's best-known political analysts, earlier Monday.
Former Socialist Culture Minister Jack Lang 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% 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% went to parties hostile to the government, with the biggest chunk--23.5%--grabbed by the Socialists.
After discreetly calling 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 neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic party and its coalition partner, the 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 the following November, he said it was 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 for his propensity to then backtrack in the face of large, paralyzing strikes and other signs of widespread discontent over his policies.
The balding native of the Landes pine forests of southwestern France rapidly came to epitomize the arrogant technocrats whom the French, beset by nagging high unemployment and a sense that their society has come unstuck, more and more resent.
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 can be sacrificed for reasons of tactical or electoral expediency. However, Chirac and Juppe, party comrades in the neo-Gaullist movement, formed a tandem of unprecedented closeness, and Chirac seemed stubbornly wed to his loyal protege, even when opinion polls consistently showed that 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 its policies, if it is 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% of the ballots cast Sunday, was still being cagey Monday about its tactics for the upcoming second round, which will take place next Sunday. Party President Jean-Marie Le Pen said Monday evening that the Front will keep 133 candidates in the running in districts where they qualified for the runoff by winning 12.5% of the registered vote, thus further whittling down the chance for a renewed center-right majority. Duhamel called that decision "murderous" for the government's hopes for reelection.
Le Pen also made light of Juppe's fate, using a salty image from his native Brittany. It's "a practice among sailors, when the ship is leaking all over, that they try to lighten the skiff by throwing overboard people considered heavyweight," he said. Chirac had improved on that practice, Le Pen continued, by getting Juppe to jump himself. "It's a maritime version of hara-kiri," he said.
If the left wins a majority of seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, Chirac will 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 CAC-40 index at the Paris bourse dropping nearly 4%. Though the market had fared well recently under Juppe and his government's policies, gaining 19.31% this year as of Friday, observers said what investors fear most is not the return to government of the French left but the climate of uncertainty that will result if no clear majority emerges after the second round.