Dubious parallels, like old prejudices, die hard. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt unleashed his legislative whirlwind in the winter and spring of 1933, and more particularly in France since 1986, it has become a standard cliché to judge a new government’s performance on the basis of its achievements during its first 100 days in office. If this yardstick was not employed in 1981, after François Mitterrand’s two electoral victories (presidential and legislative), it was simply because the Programme Commun, on which his Socialist Party and its Communist allies had swept into power, contained no less than 102 projects which this shortlived mésalliance of left-wing rivals pledged itself to carry out. Even a socialist Napoleon could not have carried out anything so outlandishly ambitious in such a short span of time.

When in 1986 a right-wing coalition won the parliamentary elections and Jacques Chirac was appointed prime minister for a second time, his Caullist party’s leading philosopher, Jean-Marie Benoist, warned that if the new government didn’t push through an urgent program of reforms within the first 100 days, it would lose its initial élan and soon bog down in a quagmire of bureaucratic sloth and institutional paralysis. The combined forces of left-wing conservatism—a solidly entrenched bureaucracy, workers always prepared to go on strike for higher pay and shorter working hours, and a huge masse de manoeuvre of lycée and university students ever ready to demonstrate on Paris streets and boulevards in favor of free education, examless admission to universities, and painlessly obtained degrees—would inevitably paralyze all efforts at radical reform. This is exactly what happened during the next two years of cohabitational stalemate presided over by a mulish president of the Republic (François Mitterrand) and an increasingly hamstrung and frustrated prime minister (Jacques Chirac).

If there was less talk of the need for a 100-day “breakthrough” when France’s right-wing parties returned to power with a crushing parliamentary majority in 1993, it was because the prime minister chosen by President Mitterrand, Edouard Balladur, was the very prototype of a French “organization man,” a pliant advocate of “consensus” and “peaceful coexistence,” cautiously committed to not rocking the boat. (That such an uninspiring and visibly self-satisfied nonentity—a “post-modern homo novus for a tired people,” as the Italian journalist, Barbara Spinelli, aptly described him in the Turin newspaper La Stampa—could for most of his two-year tenure have enjoyed such incredible popularity in successive polls offers proof, if one wanted it, of how shallow and undiscerning “public opinion” can be, in France as elsewhere.)

In May 1995, when Jacques Chirac finally achieved his political ambition by succeeding his old enemy, François Mitterrand, as the fifth president of the Fifth Republic, the 100-day yardstick was predictably brandished once again. And by the end of those first 100 days, two realities at least were beginning to emerge from the dust and the smoke: first, that the Chiracian style and modus operandi differ radically from those of the cautious Balladur and the subtly “Florentine” Mitterrand, and, secondly, that the new French president is likely to end up a prisoner of his own electoral rhetoric.

Running true to his well-known form, the legendary “bulldozer” of French politics lost no time plowing headlong into a heap of international trouble by brashly informing the world that France was going to resume its subterranean nuclear tests in the southern Pacific. To have done so on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima showed extraordinary tactlessness. But what made this exercise in nuclear muscle- flexing so grotesque was its coincidence with an embarrassing admission of military impotence. For at the very moment when Jacques Chirac was trying to convince everyone that France, with its atomic bombs and nuclear submarines, was one of the world’s great powers, he found himself forced to request American help in having French troops airlifted to Gorazde. Although this particular scheme was soon dropped, the request dramatically illustrated the real military weakness of a “great power” that has proved itself incapable of manufacturing giant helicopters capable of rapidly airlifting more than a dozen soldiers to a combat zone.

All of this was foreseen, some 36 years ago, by one of the canniest politicians of the Fourth Republic, Antoine Pinay, the modest, level-headed mayor of a small town in central France whose down-to-earth recipes for financial rigor had worked wonders during his eight-month premiership in 1952-53, and whom for that reason Charles de Gaulle chose as finance minister in June 1958 in order to stabilize a tottering franc. When, a year and a half later, the General informed his cabinet ministers of his determination to forge a French force de frappe based on nuclear bombs, Pinav was unimpressed. “Monsieur le President,” he pointed out, “any country today, even a small country like Switzerland or Holland, can build an atomic bomb if it is willing to invest the necessary resources and the vast sums of money such an effort requires. France too can certainly manufacture an atomic bomb. But once it has succeeded in doing so, what will be the result? All it will have proved is that France is still 20 years behind the United States.” In other words, a policy of phony prestige was being substituted for a less spectacular policy of military realism, aimed at modernizing France’s conventional forces, of far more practical and flexible use in Europe than the doomsday weapon of the bomb.

This said, Jacques Chirac must be given credit for having stiffened the backbone of an increasingly spineless NATO alliance by vigorously promoting the creation of a “rapid reaction force” capable of breaking the siege of Sarajevo. On August 30, the day on which the guns of the Rapid Reaction Force went into action against Serb targets, along with NATO warplanes, Bernard-Henri Levy, one of France’s leading “hawks” on the subject of Yugoslavia, called on the Bosnian president, Alija Itzebegovic, at his Paris hotel. He found him in a radiant mood. In the course of a fascinating conversation, Itzebegovic compared the two French presidents whom he had known well during the previous five years. “It’s odd,” he remarked of Jacques Chirac. “Normally, power stiffens human beings. It makes them solemn, stilted. With him it’s the opposite. I had the impression that [the exercise of] power had freed him, that it had relieved him of some kind of burden and had enormously increased his energy. I couldn’t help comparing him with Mitterrand, on the contrary so stiff.”

After which, he added (speaking of Mitterrand): “This man, for me too, will remain a mystery. So cold, yes. So calculating. . . . There was in this coldness a trait that did not fit in with the fact that he was [a man] of the left. Is there not something more emotional in left-wing persons? Yesterday, on leaving the Elysee [Palace], I said to myself that it was as though Destiny had made a mistake: it’s Chirac who basically has inherited the temperament of left-wingers.”

For Jacques Chirac this is anything but an academic question. If he was able to win the presidential election as the leading right-wing candidate, it was precisely because he managed to outmaneuver his more stolid rival, Edouard Balladur, by emphasizing his concern for the millions of suburban exclus—the latest catchword for those who, for one reason or another, have been “excluded” from the nation’s wealth—and his determination to mend the fracture sociale (the “social rift”) which had split French society into all too fortunate “haves” and all too numerous “have-nots.” Indeed, so pronounced was the stress Chirac placed on this point that before the election campaign was over, many observers were beginning to wonder if the right-wing “bulldozer” hadn’t been mysteriously metamorphosed into a left-wing chameleon.

There is, of course, nothing particularly new or specifically French about this kind of “change.” In 19th-century Britain, it was a great conservative, Benjamin Disraeli, who deplored the dire lot of British workingmen and-women over and against the hardhearted Gladstonians of the “Manchester School,” just as in Germany it was Bismarck, hardly suspect as a radical, who introduced the first comprehensive program of social security to be tried out in Europe. Closer to the present, it was Valery Giscard d’Estaing, a technocratic “centrist,” who in France was the first to launch a generous program of financial aid to the unemployed, during the 1970’s.

The problem now facing France, and virtually every other country in the West today, is how to keep a charitably inspired policy aimed at helping the jobless from becoming an encouragement to indolence. The danger-point is reached when the amount of money generously extended to the jobless to keep them from starving approaches the amounts paid out to young apprentice workers who have to toil eight hours a day or more to keep body and soul together. In France, this danger-point has been reached and even passed for hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even for one million of its more than three million officially registered unemployed.

Two years ago, Christian Jelen, an enterprising journalist who had done a lot of on-the-spot research on living conditions in the suburbs of Lyon and other French cities, came out with an important book (La famille, secret de l’integration) in which he showed how, in communities of foreign origin, those among the young who succeeded best in obtaining jobs were those who had been brought up in close-knit families. Youngsters of Vietnamese and Chinese origin, where family ties are very strong, tended to do very well in their studies and in later life, whereas the children of North African, and even more of Central African origin, often did poorly and were more likely to become “dropouts” and exclus. As has been happening in the United States ever since Lyndon Johnson introduced the maternal-aid benefits of his “Great Society,” the allocations granted in France to all mothers have not only encouraged the development of excessively large families, but in some cases even made it possible for polygamists to maintain a household with two or more wives. Jelen was simply reporting what he had discovered; but because his book contained such unpalatable truths, it was boycotted as “racist” by French TV and radio stations, and by almost every important newspaper in the country.

For his “crime” in boldly voicing unpalatable truths, France’s new Finance Minister, Alain Madelin, lost his job toward the end of Jacques Chirac’s first 100 days. A Young Turk who had already been trying (mostly in vain) to encourage small entrepreneurs as the Minister for Industries in Edouard Bahadur’s pussy-footing cabinet, Madelin felt that the time had come for Jacques Chirac’s new, “reformist” government to grasp at least one conspicuous nettle. At present, the five million French men and women who work for the French state—they include one million schoolteachers and professors—have been enjoying total job security without any loss of numbers and an actual increase in salaries, with the additional benefit of being able to retire on a comfortable pension after 37 years of work, whereas persons employed without job security by private enterprises have to work 40 years to obtain full retirement pensions, which in many cases are inferior. (Forty percent of the annual budget goes to paying the five million employees of the “public sector,” and one result has been that budget deficits, over the five years of 1990-1994, reached a level of six percent in France, compared to 2.5 percent in Germany.) It was time, Madelin declared in a radio interview, to put an end to such unjustifiable discrepancies.

Madelin’s “provocative” remarks immediately brought the roof down on his head. France’s new, “dynamic” prime minister, Alain Juppe, who was beginning to act and to sound more and more like his undynamic predecessor, Edouard Balladur, demanded and obtained Madelin’s resignation. Clearly embarrassed. President Chirac explained, first in a magazine and then in a television interview, that “one doesn’t reform by opposing one category of Frenchmen against another . . . the active against the inactive, wage-earners against [state] functionaries, the young against the old . . . ” etc.

This mild reprimand could not disguise the bitter truth: that in its first major confrontation with France’s labor unions, the Chirac locomotive had not only lost steam but had gone suddenly into reverse. A highly resistible force had met a seemingly immovable object—a for once-united labor-union front, of which the most important component today is not the once-powerful, communist-controlled CGT (Confédération Generale du Travail) but its anticommunist rival, Force Ouvrière.

Launched, along with the Marshall Plan, in the late 1940’s during the stormiest years of the Cold War, Force Ouvrière was gradually built up and developed as a solidly anticommunist trade-union syndicat by Leon Jouhaux and, from 1963 on, by a thoughtful, level-headed moderate named Andre Bergeron. Their advisors and supporters on the other side of the Atlantic were the staunchly anticommunist George Meany and his intellectual mentor, Jay Lovestone, and, in Paris, the AFL-CIO’s influential representative, Irving Brown. But four years ago, an aging Bergeron was forced to resign his post, and into his shoes stepped a bogus “moderate” named Marc Blondel, who seems to have decided that the best way to maintain Force Ouvrière& present lead is to be utterly intransigent in defending workers’ “rights” (to higher pay, etc.) and the prime mover in the formation of a united labor front—against an allegedly “liberal” government. As an astute observer of the present social scene and its backstage machinations recently said to me: “Every time in this country that a ‘common front’ is created—as happened in the middle 1930’s with the Front Populaire and in the immediate postwar period of 1945-1947—the results have been catastrophic.”

Irving Brown, like George Meany, is dead, and the new generation of advisors to whom Mare Blondel is lending an increasingly attentive car are, of all things . . . Trotskyists! Internationally, the Cold War may be over, but in France (as in other countries) the Marxist virus is still very much alive.