Paris. -- The first round of France's presidential election will take place this weekend against a background of considerable social tension. An unprecedented number of people declared themselves undecided in the final polls last week. Any one of the three principal candidates -- conservatives Jacques Chirac and Edouard Balladur and the Socialist Lionel Jospin -- might end in the presidential palace.
However, that is horse-race analysis. Much more significant for France, and indeed for others, including Americans, is the news that the biggest campaign issues have become unemployment and the question of the "excluded."
By "excluded" the French mean the homeless (whose numbers have strikingly increased in the last few years), unskilled immigrants, people whose unemployment protection has run out, and the large number of young people who have never found a job and survive by means of some extended training program (meaning disguised unemployment), a limited state subsistence stipend, or thanks to family support, or with no resources at all.
The paramountcy of this issue in the campaign means that people are rebelling against what until now has been accepted as some kind of temporary and transitional phenomenon of global economic transformation. It has proved anything but temporary. "Exclusion" has been increasing, and the French have an old commitment, connected with the founding ideas of the French republic, to "solidarity" or, as the French revolutionary slogan had it, "fraternity" -- to go along with "liberty" and "equality."
The homeless and the excluded have been on the march in Paris in recent days, mobilized by left-wing groups, but supported by people who will vote for the right in this election. The leading conservative candidate, Mr. Chirac, who a half-dozen years ago preached a French version of Reaganism and Thatcherism, has expressed sympathy for homeless groups that have broken into and occupied vacant buildings.
He has demanded that banks and insurance companies who are holding properties off the Paris market because of depressed real-estate prices open up a certain number of apartments for the homeless. Imagine a U.S. presidential race in which Republicans Bob Dole or Newt Gingrich are leading bands of the homeless in breaking into empty apartments and offices on Connecticut avenue or the upper West Side of Manhattan! Imagine Bill Clinton demanding that big real-estate investors give free lodging to the poor!
The social issue has become a very serious matter here. The social climate has become increasingly tense, with many strikes in recent days. People have put up with austerity more or less continually since the early 1970s. First it was the oil-price shocks. Then Asian competition and the global marketplace -- privatization and downsizing, producing unemployment on a scale not seen since the Great Depression. There has been steady pressure on salaries, and a threat to the social insurance TTC and universal medical protection the French enjoy.
Voters until now have put up with this with amazing perseverance and patience. The French government, under both Socialists and conservatives, has faithfully done what economic orthodoxy demanded of it. France's currency today shadows the German mark. French inflation has been the lowest in Western Europe. French unemployment nonetheless has become the highest. Something now is going to give.
Global market forces are increasingly seen here as a juggernaut that destroys jobs and lives. Americans complain of a new French (and European) bitterness against American trade demands, which they identify as anti-Americanism. The U.S. government's relentless and sometimes brutal campaign to globalize trade and finance, downsize government and treat labor as "another commodity" is increasingly seen abroad as an ideologically driven threat to human well-being -- one which has made Americans themselves its first victims.
This election in France has opened up a social debate which in the longer term may have international importance. Certainly if either Mr. Chirac or Mr. Jospin wins, there will be changes in France with Europe-wide repercussions, at a moment when trans-Atlantic economic rivalry and political tensions are the highest they have been since the Cold War ended.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.