France's new conservative prime minister, Jacques Chirac, today pledged to push ahead rapidly with the relaxation of state economic controls in a sharp break with five years of left-wing rule.
Outlining his government's program in his first address to parliament since the narrow right-wing election victory last month, Chirac announced plans to begin turning over to private control state-owned banks, major industrial groups and communications networks during the next few months. He also revealed a package of new measures to crack down on terrorism and crime and to control immigration.
"France is today living through a great moment of hope. The French both want and expect a change of course. Our duty is to respond to this hope," the prime minister told the 577-member National Assembly, which later passed a vote of confidence in his government by 292 to 285.
The policy declaration in the assembly coincided with the flare-up of the first major controversy between the new government and Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. The dispute centered on the president's declared determination to limit the government's ability to bypass complex parliamentary procedures and adopt legislation by decree.
Although the row is unlikely to provoke any immediate rupture between Mitterrand and Chirac, political analysts said it could eventually lead to a constitutional trial of strength between the two branches of the executive. The Socialist defeat in the March 16 election marked the first time in the 28-year history of the French Fifth Republic that a president has been obliged to select a political opponent as prime minister.
At a Cabinet meeting chaired by the president his morning, Chirac announced that the government would ask parliament for authority to resort to decrees to push through its program of privatization.
A statement released by the Elysee presidential palace said that Mitterrand would not sign government decrees selling off companies nationalized before the Socialist election victory in 1981 on the grounds that they were part of the nation's heritage. This distinction was denounced as "artificial" by conservative leaders who said they did not recognize Mitterrand's right to pick and choose which decrees he was prepared to sign.
In his 80-minute speech to the assembly, Chirac described France as a country whose economy had suffered from too much state interference. Echoing the main conservative theme in the election campaign, he said it was necessary to return initiative to private enterprise in order to bring down unemployment, now running more than 10 percent of the labor force.
"Our new frontier must be employment," he declared, expressing particular concern about the fact that one young French person in three is unable to find a job.
The prime minister devoted a significant section of his speech to foreign affairs, but political commentators noted few major differences with the policies of the outgoing Socialist government. There is a widespread consensus in France on the main lines of foreign policy and the country's semi-independent status within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Chirac did, however, call for an improvement in relations with Iran, which have been strained recently because of France's support for Iraq in the Persian Gulf war and the kidnaping of French citizens in Lebanon by pro-Iranian groups. The gesture was considered significant because Chirac is regarded as one of the architects of close French economic and political ties with Iraq during his previous term as prime minister, from 1974-76.
The government's proposals for tackling terrorism include stricter controls on foreigners visiting France, the reform of the penal code to cover specific terrorist crimes and the institution of a special court to try accused terrorists. France is to follow neighboring Italy in offering "repentant" terrorists a reduction in their sentences in return for useful information.
During the past few months, France has been hit by a wave of terrorist bombings linked by police to the Middle East. A bomb exploded on the Avenue des Champs Elysees on the day that Chirac was named prime minister, killing two persons and injuring nearly 30.
Chirac said that the antiterrorist effort would be coordinated by a new council for internal security responsible to the prime minister. He said the government was considering obliging citizens of countries outside the European Economic Community to obtain visas to visit France, a proposal which appeared to be aimed primarily at Arabs from North Africa.
The prime minister, who was interrupted repeatedly by jeers from the opposition and cheers from his supporters, also called for fixed 30-year prison sentences for crimes covered by the death penalty, which was abolished in 1981.
One of the major priorities of the new government, Chirac said, would be to abolish the system of proportional representation introduced by Mitterrand last year. The assembly will be asked to vote later this month on a bill giving the government authority to reintroduce the old system of winner-take-all voting in single-seat constituencies.
Chirac said that a return to majority voting was essential to ensure a stable government. He and other conservative spokesmen have accused Mitterrand of using proportional representation as a means of depriving the right of a solid majority in the assembly.
The government's list of companies slated for return to private control included practically all the banks, financial companies and leading industrial groups nationalized by the Socialists after 1981.