FOR a country that prides itself on its Cartesian logic, France has recently taken a decidedly baroque turn in its politics. First, President Jacques Chirac intervened in the country's bitter eight-week-long clash over a new job contract for young people under 26. His bizarre solution? To permit the controversial bill creating the new contract to go into law, but to urge his fellow citizens to pay no attention to it until it was amended.
Next, and equally baffling to a French public that has grown used to seeing parliament treated as a mere rubber stamp, Mr Chirac handed authorship of a new law to amend the contested one not to the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin (above, right), but to the UMP party, whose leader is the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy (left)."It is time," the president concluded in a televised statement watched by some 21m viewers, "to resolve the situation."
By the middle of this week, that promised resolution had bred only confusion. The stand-off between the government and protesters continued in the streets. On April 4th, in another day of strikes and demonstrations, 1m-3m people—as many as the week previously—marched around the country. They are continuing to demand the complete withdrawal of the contrat premi?re embauche (CPE), designed by Mr de Villepin in a bid to encourage job creation. This was the law that Mr Chirac decided to promulgate, after the Constitutional Council, France's highest court, had ruled that it was perfectly constitutional.
Political authority in France is now in a state of flux. A resolute Mr de Villepin continued to insist this week that he "will not give up." But his position has been seriously undermined. He is no longer in charge of the law he originally drew up. Bernard Accoyer, head of the parliamentary group of the UMP, along with his counterpart in the Senate, is now drafting a new one to meet Mr Chirac's two main demands for change: a halving of the CPE's two-year probation period, and a requirement that employers must justify any redundancy. In a dramatic power shift, it was Mr Accoyer who this week invited union leaders to talks. Mr de Villepin did not even attend. "Mr prime minister, who governs France today?" taunted Jean-Marc Ayrault, leader of the Socialist group in the National Assembly.
The humiliation for Mr de Villepin is acute. By promulgating the law, Mr Chirac hoped to help his prime minister to salvage some credibility. He may also have been trying to thwart any thoughts of resignation: if the street brought down a government only a year before the next presidential election, it could crush the rest of his presidency as well as the prospects for the political right. Yet it is hard to see how Mr de Villepin can push any other reforms in the run-up to the 2007 presidential election, let alone plausibly mount his own bid. His popularity has fallen by 14 points over the past month, to just 28%, says a BVA poll for L'Express. As for Mr Chirac, 62% of those who watched his TV address judged it “unconvincing”. A "calamitous fin de r?gne", commented Le Monde.
Who will emerge strengthened from this saga? Top of the list stands the trade-union movement. In the past, it has been split by fratricidal disputes. The previous government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin managed to push through a pension reform against union resistance largely because it won the support of the CFDT, a more moderate group. This time, the five main unions, along with those representing students, have been rock solid in insisting on the withdrawal of the CPE, which is now part of French law but which many deputies already refer to as dead.
Indeed, flush with their success, some union leaders (as well as the opposition Socialists) are now demanding the abolition of another more flexible job contract previously introduced by Mr de Villepin. The Socialists too have been capitalising on the government's troubles; in the past month alone, they have signed up an extra 18,000 members.
The biggest uncertainty, however, concerns Mr Sarkozy, Mr de Villepin's main rival as presidential hopeful for the centre-right. As head of the UMP, he seemed to interpret this week's shift of power to the parliamentary party as carte blanche to take charge. No sooner had Mr Chirac spoken than Mr Sarkozy reminded the public that "for several weeks, I've been calling for a compromise." To the consternation of the prime minister's supporters, he spent the weekend telephoning union leaders personally, urging them to return to negotiations. "Sarkozy, the other prime minister," ran a banner headline at Le Parisien.
Mr Sarkozy may yet be hauled back into line. But, so far, public opinion seems to approve of his efforts. While 70% told a CSA poll that Mr Chirac had emerged from the crisis weakened, and 75% thought Mr de Villepin had, only 30% felt the same about Mr Sarkozy. If he can help to bring about an end to the street protests, his stock could rise still further. On April 5th he called for constitutional change in response to what he described as the exhaustion of France's political system.
The big difficulty for Mr Sarkozy will be to square the impression of yielding to the street with his advocacy of a "rupture" with the bad old ways. In the past, Mr Sarkozy has consistently pushed for an even bolder liberalisation of the labour market than Mr de Villepin has even dared to propose. Indeed, he favours a single, more flexible job contract for all, to bring an end to France's two-tier labour market. If the new law ends up rendering the CPE meaningless, with no concessions extracted from the labour movement in return, it will hardly amount to a convincing demonstration of his reformist credentials.
Sarkozy can exploit the dementia-addled Chirac's jettisoning his chosen successor, the fop poetaster de Villepin only so far. The Socialists have an attractive Hillary Clinton type named Segolene Royal who could be formidable if she is nominated for Socialist candidate for President. Sarkozy has to square the circle of resolving the CPE riddle and maintaining his economic-liberal credentials that the "rupture" with the social model stands for.
Meantime, it is nice to see de Villepin, who ambushed Colin Powell at the UN after pledging his support in 2003, get bushwhacked in return by his own boss and mentor! It's good to see the contempt most Americans feel for Chirac and Villepin reflected in the French people.
Now if only the Brits liked Blair as much as the Yanks do!