14 JULY 1979, Page 9

Hanging on to Barre

Sam White

Paris The French Prime Minister, Raymond Barre, is approaching his third anniversary in that post and, according to all the precedents of the Fifth Republic, he should now be preparing to leave in order to give a kind of second wind to the long seven-year term of President Giscard. Such a second wind would under normal circumstances, be appropriate, but it has become all the more necessary now; in fact Giscard should be preparing himself for the run-up to the 1981 presidential elections by dropping a Prime Minister who has been .both markedly unpopular and markedly unsuccessful in achieving his stated objectives, and by replacing him with someone of broader appeal and more flexible approach.

Yet it looks as though nothing of the kind is about to happen, now or in the foreseeable future; Giscard and Barre appear to have become the inseparable Siamese twins of French political life. Ever since de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic, the stability of its institutions has been affected by the insecurity of the post of Prime Minister. These have been dismissed either by Presidential whim or because, as with Debre in Algeria, they had served their particular purpose or, as was the case with Pompidou under de Gaulle or Chaban-Delmas under Pompidou, because they were building up a rival power base to the Elysee. In this context, Barre is in the unique position of neither being a potential rival to Giscard nor — to put it mildly of having served his purpose.

His basic purpose was, by liberalising the French economy, to increase investment, reduce unemployment and, above all, to bring down the level of inflation to something like the German single-figure rate: all within a stated period of three years. With no marked increase in investment, with unemployment going up instead of down, with inflation running at 10 per cent and with the three-year term complete, he has lost his gamble; he has not, however, lost one scrap of his self-assurance. He is ready to do battle with the Fates with as fresh an optimism as when he first engaged them. And, although he himself does not complain, who can deny that the Fates have been against him? The rise in oil prices and in raw material prices have clearly helped to push him off course. Yet the same misfortunes have struck both West Germany and Japan without quite the same serious consequences. And then again, too, while Barre may have suffered possibly unforeseeable misfortunes, he has also had great and equally unforeseeable good luck. Who could have foretold, for example, after the Government's narrow victory over the Left in the last general election that Barre, instead of being faced with a tidal wave of trade union militancy, would find them in a more docile mood than they have been in for decades? Who could have foretold that, instead of having a parliamentary opposition which would harass him at every step, he would find one anxious to do battle on its own doorstep rather than his?

Consider the almost farcical disarray in which his Parliamentary opponents find themselves — Communists chiefly preoccupied with destroying any chance of a Socialist winning the next Presidential election and Socialists so divided that they can fail by themselves, without Communist help. Domestically, therefore, Barre has had all his own way. He has, in fact, enjoyed a liberty of action denied to any of his predecessors under both the Fourth and Fifth Republics. The one alibi he cannot produce and, to do him justice, he is above producing alibis — is any complaint that he was deflected from his course by internal opposition or Presidential pressure to dilute the severity of his measures. What, then, binds the President and his Prime Minister in so tight a bond? The answer is, quite simply, the franc. Although Barre has failed in his larger designs he has succeeded in defending the franc — especially in relation to the dollar —and he has produced a foreign trade balance. To drop Barre now, or in the months to come, would be to expose the franc to immediate danger, As Le Point points out, it is now not Giscard but Barre who has become the symbol in the eyes of the financial world of French economic stability. To change the man would be tantamount to disowning his policies.

Meanwhile while politicians squabble over the reasons for their setbacks or gloat, as Giscard's followers are doing, over their dubious 'triumph' in the European elections, the contrast between these kindergarden goings-on and the enormity of the world crisis that is taking shape becomes more and more striking. It is in this context one hears or reads more and more references to Giscard's alleged 'fragility'. This is a term which has not been Spoiled to him since the early years of his Presidency, but it has now been revived with a vengeance in a striking article by Andre Fontaine in Le Monde. It is all very well, argues Fontaine, for the President to demonstrate on television and elsewhere that he is aware of the looming dangers, but his steadfast refusal to 'dramatise' them gives an air of complacency to his speeches which belies their content. Fontaine recalls Raymond Aron's famous judgment on Giscard: 'The trouble with Giscard is that he is not aware that history comprises tragedy.' For him, certain of his own high intelligence, reason must always triumph over unreason. One can imagine, by contrast, the kind of speeches de Gaulle would be making now in face of the dangers that are looming.

One such danger, apart from the oil crisis, is the Soviet SS-20 missile — which represents a direct threat to all of France's ground-based atomic missiles, and thereby reduces considerably the credibility of France's atomic striking force. It is not unlikely, therefore, that the SS-20 will be used by both Washington and Moscow to put pressure on Paris to participate in the SALT III negotiations. This would Mean that the French independent deterrent would have to become part and parcel of a controlled armoury, thereby losing both its independence and, with it, what is left of its credibility. But this would happen just at the timewhen, as far as Europe is concerned, the credibility of the American nuclear umbrella is at its lowest.