Jospin, Lionel (France)

Reference work entry


The former leader of the Parti Socialiste (PS), Lionel Jospin was prime minister of France between 1997–2002. Heading a coalition government of Socialist, Greens and Communists, Jospin formed a cohabitation (power sharing) with President Jacques Chirac who represented the right-wing Rassemblement pour la République (Rally for the Republic; RPR). Major reforms introduced by Jospin included a 35-h working week and limited autonomy for Corsica. A presidential candidate in the 1995 elections, Jospin stood again in the 2002 election. But when he was beaten by the Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round, Jospin fell out of the race. He immediately resigned as prime minister and leader of the PS.

Early Life

Jospin was born on 12 July 1937 in Meudon, Paris. The son of a teacher and a midwife, he is from a staunchly socialist family. In 1956 Jospin finished his studies at the Institute of Politics in Paris. Following 2 years national service, from 1965 he studied at the Ecole National d’Administration, the training ground for French politicians and senior civil servants. Two years later, Jospin joined the foreign ministry, becoming a secretary for foreign affairs. After studying in the USA, Jospin taught politics at the IUT University of Technology in Paris until 1981.

Jospin followed in the family political tradition and joined the PS in 1971. He became a protégé of François Mitterrand, serving as one of the group of experts around the party leader. Between 1975–79 Jospin was responsible for mediations between the PS and the Parti Communiste Français. In 1981 he supported Mitterrand’s electoral campaign.

On Mitterrand’s election, Jospin was voted party secretary of the PS, a post he held for 7 years. From 1988–92, he served as minister for education, youth and sport. Reforms included new classrooms nationwide and the building of seven new universities. He aroused opposition when he allowed Muslim girls to wear the hijab, or headscarf, at school. France’s national education system had been strictly secular since reforms in 1882 disallowed any demonstration of religious allegiance. Internal disputes in the PS came to a head at a difficult party conference at Rennes in 1990. Unhappy with party wranglings, Jospin resigned from the PS committee in 1993, only returning to the PS when Michel Rocard took over its leadership. In 1995 Jospin was voted PS representative at the presidential elections with 65% of party votes. After leading the RPR candidates Balladur and Chirac in the first round, Jospin came second with 47% of votes to Chirac’s 53% in a run-off election. He was voted Party Secretary for the second time with 94% of votes.

Career Peak

Chirac called an early election in 1997, a gamble that led to a socialist majority in the Assembly. Consequently, an opposition prime minister had to be instated. On election, Jospin promised lower unemployment, then running at 12.6%, and a reduction of the working week to 35 h. He also pledged to reverse unpopular right-wing economic policies, which had been introduced to meet qualification requirements for the single currency.

In his first 2 years, Jospin reversed the nationalization policies of Mitterrand and privatized £12 bn. of the public sector. By 2000 France’s economy was in good shape. Unemployment was below 10%, and there was a 3% economic growth. Exports and foreign investments were aided by a weak euro. In Feb. 2000 the 35-h working week finally took effect. Economic prosperity in France allowed Jospin to cut taxes on income and profits. His failure to reduce fuel taxes led to angry demonstrations by fishermen, farmers and hauliers who blockaded ports and oil depots. Despite pressure from the Greens to remain firm on fuel tax, Jospin conceded a reduction. Following years of political tension and nationalist activism in Corsica, in Sept. 2000 Jospin controversially granted limited rights of autonomy and a promise of devolved law making powers by 2004. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the interior minister, resigned in protest.

Jospin’s cohabitation with Chirac was not always easy. In defiance of the convention that the president should handle international affairs, in Feb. 2000 Jospin went on a controversial visit to Israel where he angered the Arab community by referring to Hizbollah activists as ‘terrorists’. Despite falling unemployment, down to 8.7% in March 2001(the lowest since 1983), and healthy economic growth, large private sector redundancies led to public opposition. In the local elections of March 2001, the left lost ground. Strikes by railway workers and midwives added to Jospin’s problems. By April 2001, tensions within the leftwing coalition were near breaking point.

Nonetheless, Jospin announced his candidature for the 2002 presidential election as the chief rival to Chirac. Despite sustained growth and lower unemployment under Jospin, and despite both candidates’ awareness of the public’s concern with crime, the inability of both prime minister and president to curb crime in the last 5 years led some voters to favour the extreme policies of Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. In a shock first round result, Le Pen beat Jospin to second place with 16.86% of votes to 16.17%. Jospin resigned his premiership and stepped down from the leadership of the PS. In the June parliamentary elections the left lost their ruling majority to a rightwing coalition. Jospin’s successor as Prime Minister was Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Later Life

After leaving office, Jospin claimed he was retiring from active political life although in 2005 he published a book setting out his political vision which fuelled speculation that he was considering running for leadership of the PS. However, he ruled himself out in Sept. 2006 and campaigned on behalf of Ségolène Royal during the 2007 presidential election although he later revealed that he had voted for her rival Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He remains a leading figure within the PS and supported Martine Aubry for the leadership in 2008.

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