Gloomy France to Vote Amid Disenchantment

PARIS -- A gloomy France votes in the first round of a parliamentary election next Sunday disenchanted with both major blocs and skeptical about President Jacques Chirac's reasons for calling the vote 10 months early.

Opinion polls suggest his ruling center-right coalition will be re-elected with a sharply reduced majority, but two-thirds of voters do not want him to reappoint Prime Minister Alain Juppe, widely blamed for austerity, record unemployment and high taxes.

"France is sulking," the weekly magazine L'Express headlined a cover story on the national mood.

Surveys show most voters are deeply dissatisfied by the way the country is governed, do not trust the coalition nor the Socialist-Communist opposition's platforms and doubt the election will make any difference to their lives.

Juppe has felt obliged to warn conservative voters against the temptation of abstaining or casting protest votes for the extreme-right National Front and dissident candidates, though the two-round voting system in single-member constituencies means they will win few, if any, seats.

Two years after Chirac was elected promising an all-out war on unemployment, the jobless rate has inched up from 11.7 percent to a postwar record of 12.8 percent, the highest in any major industrialized democracy.

Polls show a majority of voters feel Chirac has broken his election promises and do not believe the center-right's pledges of cuts in payroll charges and taxation to create jobs.

The Socialists are confronting their own image problems. Despite Socialist leader Lionel Jospin's efforts to give his party a new face, many voters have not forgiven the Socialists for the stagnation and sleaze of the late president Francois Mitterrand's last years in power.

For a moment at the start of the campaign, it seemed France might be given a sharp choice between a radical, deregulating right and a Keynesian redistributive left. But the lines have since blurred. Chirac and Juppe have made clear they are proposing a cautious slimming down of big government.

Opinion research shows a majority of voters want a strong, protective state and are profoundly attached to the costly public health and welfare system.

"Whenever there is a problem in France, people turn to the state," said Rene Monory, the center-right Senate speaker, who caused one of the few stirs of the campaign by saying the national minimum wage was bound to disappear.