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French premier announces he'll step down

Move follows stunning loss in elections

May 26, 1997
Web posted at: 4:01 p.m. EDT (2001 GMT)

PARIS (CNN) -- French premier Alain Juppe announced he would resign Monday, a day after his center-right coalition made its worst showing in a first-round parliamentary election in more than 30 years.

"A new team led by a new prime minister is needed," Juppe said in a brief statement after meeting with President Jacques Chirac. "I'll fight the right fight to the end. After that, I'll consider that my job is done."

With 100 percent of the districts counted from Sunday's ballot, unofficial results showed that the conservative coalition led by Chirac and Juppe captured just under 30 percent of the vote, compared to 40.6 percent for a left-wing alliance of Socialists, Communists and ecologists.

The far-right National Front, with its strong stances against immigration and European integration, took 15 percent, its best showing ever.

While Socialists and their allies celebrated, the results caused the Paris stock market to plunge nearly 4 percent Monday.

Candidates who captured more than 12.5 percent advance to the second round of balloting next Sunday. Projections showed that if the French left can hold on to the level of support it received in the first round, it could capture a small majority in the National Assembly, which would force Chirac into an unwieldy "cohabitation" with the opposition.

Juppe's unpopularity seen as dragging down right

Juppe's economic reforms and France's record 12.8 percent unemployment rate had alienated him from a large part of the electorate. After the ballot, leading members of Chirac's conservative Rally for the Republic party and their centrist allies from the Union for French Democracy said openly that Juppe must go if conservatives were to have any chance of victory in the second round.


Juppe, 51, had been hinting that he might sacrifice his own position if it was necessary to help his coalition prevail. In the end, that is what he did.

"A new era must begin now," Juppe said. "To succeed, we need clear objectives. We have a week before us to give the French people a better idea of our vision of the future."

Chirac was unlikely to name a preferred successor to Juppe before the runoff, but he may indicate whether he wants a more socially-minded, or a more free-marketeering policy.

Chirac's election gamble may have backfired

The irony in Sunday's results is that, constitutionally, Chirac did not have to call an election for 10 more months, and the center-right coalition held about 80 percent of the seats in the National Assembly.

But he took a gamble and called elections before imposing further economic austerity measures needed to qualify France for the single European currency in 1999. The thinking was that conservatives would be more likely to win before those measures were imposed than after.

Now, if Chirac is forced to share power with the left, the pace of budget cuts and other austerity measures would likely slow. The Communists in particular have been cool to the idea of joining the single currency.

Socialist leader Lionel Jospin, who is likely to become premier if the left wins a majority next Sunday, called on voters to back a "pact for change."

"The French can see a future with the left," he said. "The forces of the left must rally together."

"The next government must make it a priority to listen to the concerns of all the French who feel worried, who feel forgotten and threatened," Jospin said.

Le Pen's support could be key in second round

One of the big question marks for the second round is where voters who backed candidates from the National Front, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, will go.

The Front was expected to announce later Monday whether it would urge its voters to support the center-right or the left in constituencies where its candidates were eliminated in the first round. But Le Pen went out of his way to take a swipe at the conservative president.

"President Chirac put himself personally into this battle, and he has been defeated. He should go," Le Pen said.

However, on Tuesday, Chirac will get the opportunity to use the trappings of his office to boost his coalition's prospects. He will host a signing ceremony at Elysee Palace for a new partnership between Russia and NATO.

"It shows that under his leadership, France can play an important role in the new NATO," said a presidential aide.

Correspondent Jim Bitterman and Reuters contributed to this report.

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