PARIS -- Marking his second Bastille Day yesterday as president of France, Jacques Chirac told his disgruntled compatriots that, in effect, they couldn't have their cake and eat it, too -- that years of high deficit spending and mismanagement meant that they would have to sweat through high unemployment and high taxes to pay off deficits for at least another year before recovery set in.
But then, perhaps mindful of Marie Antoinette, he invited thousands of young people and assorted prominent guests onto the grounds of the Elysee Palace to eat all the cake they wanted for most of a sun-splashed afternoon, the 207th anniversary of the start of the French Revolution.
The guest of honor on the reviewing stand for the annual parade of French military might and at the garden party was President Nelson Mandela of South Africa. He called Chirac a "great leader" and said how happy he was to be received in the land of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu.
Autograph-seekers nearly mobbed Chirac and Mandela, and they quickly retreated behind security guards, but the experience seemed to buoy the French president's spirits. Elected with 53 percent of the vote in May of 1995, he saw his approval ratings tumble to the 30s and 40s after he began austerity policies late last autumn. Prime Minister Alain Juppe's ratings have hovered at around 30 percent since he tried to impose pension and welfare cuts last November.
Chirac conceded that, all in all, it hadn't been a good first year.
"France has paralyzed itself," he said in an interview televised live from the palace grounds yesterday. "It has lived on credit, it spent without thinking, and it therefore has too deep a deficit."
Chirac is determined to bring French deficit spending down from 5 percent of gross national product last year to 3 percent next year, the level required to enable the franc to join the German mark in a common European currency by the end of the decade.
But with unemployment in double digits and a spate of corruption scandals involving major political figures from all parties, the country is having a serious crisis of confidence in his and Juppe's ability to lead it out of the economic wilderness.
"France has let itself go far too long," he said. "We have refused reforms. We have the intention and the objective of getting France back on the move again, and that is possible. We need a minimum of time to reap the fruits."
Pub Date: 7/15/96