AMERICANS MAY have little respect for their political leaders, but they can take heart from the fact that the French have even less for theirs.
The outstanding exception is the prime minister, Lionel Jospin, who consistently receives a 60 percent approval rating in the polls - not because of his policies but because his compatriots apparently regard him as one of their nation's few upright and honest politicians.Jospin and his Cabinet team of Socialists, Communists and environmentalists have muddled along since winning office in parliamentary elections 11 months ago. He has done nothing much except introduce a 35-hour work week that nearly everyone agrees is likely to worsen rather than ease the country's staggering 12 percent unemployment rate.
It's hard to point to anything the Jospin government is doing any better than the previous coalition of centrists that it unseated. Yet, nearly two of every three voters say they support the 65-year-old prime minister and would cast their ballots for him again in preference to rivals on either the right or left.
The reason, according to many analysts here, is that he is perceived as money-honest, one of the rare politicians of any note who hasn't been accused of, or at least suspected of, corruption.
"Jospin still lives in the modest apartment he occupied when he started out in politics 25 years ago," noted Thibault Ullman, a political scientist at the University of Paris. "In the eyes of the public, that's a big plus in his favor. Many of our politicians seem unable to resist high living, even if it means doing something obviously dishonest."
Former Foreign Minister Roland Dumas was indicted this week on charges of accepting a $750,000 bribe in connection with the sale in 1991 of six naval vessels to Taiwan. Dumas is now the head of the Constitutional Council, France's version of the U.S. Supreme Court, a post to which he was appointed by his close friend, the late President Francois Mitterrand.
Jospin was a senior party official during most of Mitterrand's 14 years in office between 1981 and 1995. But he kept himself personally aloof from that administration, which is now widely recognized as having been replete with cronyism and shady dealings.
When Jospin became head of the government, he made a point of excluding from his Cabinet anyone viewed as personally close to Mitterrand.
"The French people got the message," said Coty. "That single move assured Jospin's popularity."