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Pragmatic Path Pays Off for French Premier

Nation is enjoying economic boomlet, drop in jobless rate since Socialist Lionel Jospin took office. Even foes have praised his performance.

June 20, 1998|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Glamorous French Socialist Party baron Jack Lang once dismissed him as a "loser." But this week, it was Lionel Jospin, not Lang, who lunched with President Clinton at the White House and enjoyed bigwig status in Washington.

One year after taking command of France's government after an upset election victory for the Socialist Party, Prime Minister Jospin is still riding high in the polls. So far, he has managed not only to keep France in step with its European partners in the march toward a single market and currency, but he has also reassured the French that they will not lose treasured social benefits.

Admittedly, Jospin's pragmatic path has been blessed by luck: Since he took office, France's economy has embarked on a boomlet. Exports are at a record high, inflation is the lowest in four decades, and in March, the number of unemployed dropped below 3 million for the first time since the end of 1995.

There have been sit-ins by people without jobs, a strike by teachers in the grimy working-class suburbs of Paris, angry debates about reforming immigration laws--but Jospin and his ministers have been able to sidestep full-blown crisis.

This month, the prime minister showed enough firmness to deflate a 10-day pilots strike at Air France that had threatened to disrupt the World Cup soccer championship underway in the country.

For Jospin, the feel-good factor still works because many tough but inevitable decisions, like how much to cut France's notoriously large state sector, still lie ahead, analysts note. But even some of political foes admire his performance.

"He's making out fine. He's engaging in politics, whereas we were managing. And managing badly," said Claude Goasguen, a lawmaker from Paris and member of a former, center-right government.

"Jospin has been a nice surprise in France's politics. And how many times do you see that in any country?" noted Alain Duhamel, one of this country's best-known political commentators.

Jospin's three-day visit to Washington, his first since taking office, was officially meant to compare U.S. and French views on current affairs. But members of the French leader's entourage made no secret of their intent to better acquaint the White House, Congress and the American public with Jospin--a former apparatchik in the Socialist Party who may be France's next president.

Compared to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was elected a month before him, Jospin has seemed to many on the other side of the Atlantic to incarnate an outdated form of left-wing politics: Witness the law Jospin has pushed through to inaugurate a 35-hour workweek, and his government's promise of 350,000 more jobs to soak up youth unemployment.

"I think Blair is more like a member of the U.S. Democratic Party--Jospin is a real Socialist," said Harvey Feigenbaum, a professor of political science at George Washington University and a specialist on France. "I believe he feels that, though you might have to be pragmatic, the ultimate goal is to move toward a more social-democratic type of society."

Speaking to reporters after arriving in Washington on Wednesday, Jospin defended his government's economic and social goals.

He also showed his pragmatism one more time by voicing admiration for the power of the U.S. economy to create "real jobs with good salaries, and not just little jobs."

He said he intended to use his visit to the United States "to get to know this country better through its leaders."

It is not the least of Jospin's achievements that he has managed to hold together a coalition of Socialists, Communists and ecologists and give his government the appearance of both collegiality and decisiveness. His sober, schoolmaster style--more typical for a Scandinavian Social Democrat than a figure on the French left--has also been a welcome gulp of fresh air, and a stark contrast to the impetuousness and bluster of center-right President Jacques Chirac.

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