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Jospin's Surprising Journey to Power

France: Socialist at times even startled himself with his rise. He vows to 'do what we have said.'


PARIS — Rimless spectacles, white curls, dull-hued suits, professorial air and talk of ethics in politics: In style as well as substance, Lionel Jospin, the new prime minister of France, is the very opposite of the monarchical Francois Mitterrand, his onetime Socialist mentor.

"Between the principles of morality that I used to see written on the blackboard of my classroom, and the principles that must impose themselves on the state, there must be a close relationship," Jospin has said.

During the campaign for France's snap legislative election, which led to a stunning upset parliamentary victory for the left Sunday, Jospin's motto was: "Say what we will do, do what we have said."

What he does will be closely monitored throughout Europe, because the increasingly troubled process that is supposed to lead to a single currency, the euro, by 1999 now must clear a new hurdle: competing policies and politicians at the apex of the French state.

President Jacques Chirac, the center-rightist with whom Jospin will now "cohabit," favors the new currency. But the Socialist leader stressed during the campaign that he would refuse new austerity measures, including cutting the budget deficit, aimed at helping France meet the criteria laid down by the 1991 Maastricht Treaty.

In a victory speech Sunday night, Jospin underlined the need for "a reorientation of European construction."

For political analyst Alain Duhamel, one major error committed by Chirac and former Prime Minister Alain Juppe was "underestimating Jospin"--and his conviction, ambition and energy.

Son of a midwife and a teacher of handicapped children, the Socialist managed to marshal most of the disparate forces of the left, to bring more women into the leadership and, perhaps most important, to make the Socialists again a believable and desirable choice for the French four years after their party's stinging electoral debacle of 1993.

Jospin, who will turn 60 on July 12, was born into a Protestant and Socialist family in Meudon near Paris. After serving in an army armored unit in Germany and rising to the rank of second lieutenant, he graduated in 1965 from the elite School of National Administration, a seedbed for leaders of all sorts.

He began a diplomatic career in the Foreign Ministry in 1965, specializing in international economic relations.

The upheaval in French society in the spring of 1968 convinced him that a diplomat's striped pants were too confining for someone passionately interested in his nation's affairs, and he left two years later to teach economics at a polytechnic institute in Sceaux, about 15 miles south of Paris.

After joining the fledgling Socialist Party in 1971, Jospin quickly rose, and he was tapped by party founder Mitterrand to succeed him as party leader 10 years later when Mitterrand undertook his third, and successful, campaign for the presidency. "This man is capable of fulfilling the highest functions," Mitterrand accurately judged.

Though top party apparatchik from 1981 to 1988, Jospin chafed as real power was exercised by Mitterrand and his Socialist ministers. Reelected in 1988, Mitterrand offered Jospin the difficult job of minister of national education. In that politically sensitive post, Jospin polished his work style. He would pore over dossiers, ponder, fix a course of action and act.

His deliberate style, which some saw as dillydallying and Hamlet-like indecision, has since become the butt of jokes seen all over France on "Les Guignols de l'Info," a nightly television program in which puppets play the part of France's best-known politicians.

In 1992, with a change of prime ministers, an unhappy Jospin was not included in the new government. The next year, he lost his deputy's seat during the right's landslide victory in parliamentary elections. In 1994, friends of Jospin's longtime Socialist rival, former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, took control of the party organization.

In the throes of defeat, Jospin dreamed for a time of resuming his old love, diplomacy. In an irony of fate, he asked the foreign minister at the time, Alain Juppe, for a European ambassadorship, perhaps to Prague. Juppe let him dangle, and Jospin never became ambassador. On Monday, it was Juppe whom Jospin succeeded as prime minister.

In another irony, it was a further defeat--but a "beautiful defeat," as the French say--that gave Jospin preeminence in his party and in France's left. The expectation was that the popular former head of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, would seek the Socialist candidacy in 1995 to succeed Mitterrand as president.

But Delors backed out, and Jospin saw his chance. He beat Henri Emmanuelli, then the party leader, in a membership ballot for the nomination and set out to become president of France.

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