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Nationalistic tonic offered for French malaise Mitterrand called clever but unliked


PARIS -- There is something wrong in France, everyone agrees. As always, they call it the malaise, a tired word for a tired and dispirited condition.

But not everybody concurs on the cause or the cure.

To some the cause is obvious, and so is the corrective. Franz-Olivier Giesbert, editor of the influential newspaper Le Figaro, thinks he knows what to do.

For him, the source of the malaise is the Socialist Party that has governed France since 1981 (with a two-year interruption). By extension, that includes President Francois Mitterrand, who founded it, and who has been in office longer than any president since the Fifth Republic was launched by Charles De Gaulle in 1958.

"I don't think they [the people] like him anymore," Mr. Giesbert said. "I don't think they trust him. They think he is smart, clever. But they don't like him."

Mr. Giesbert alludes to allegations of corruption in the governing party. "Nobody believes in our institutions anymore," he says. He speaks of a "moral crisis."

The party's headquarters were raided recently by police searching for evidence of corrupt campaign practices. Rumors are rife of bribery and the selling of favors to well-connected businesses.

Prime Minister Edith Cresson, France's first female head of government, is widely unpopular, as is Mr. Mitterrand, who appointed her. The most recent polls put their approval ratings at only 24 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

Mr. Giesbert pounds the Socialist Party relentlessly in his newspaper. He says it is exhausted, bereft of ideas. When asked what the leaders in the parties more to the right and center would do to reanimate the French, shake them free of their fears and self-doubts, he himself suddenly is bereft.

What would a government led by Jacques Chirac, or Valery Giscard d'Estaing, offer? Can they give what Mrs. Cresson cannot?

Even the government concedes people are not happy with politicians. An official very close to Mrs. Cresson who preferred to remain anonymous said the disquiet was "very profound, if a little bit media-created." It could be measured, he said, in an increase in the voting abstention rate from 10 percent a decade ago to 20 percent today.

The policies of the major parties are more or less the same. They favor privatization of national industries and maintaining the generous social welfare system. Mr. Giesbert considers his absence of alternatives, then waves his hand and says, "Who can see into the future?"

Pierre Hassner, a political scientist at the Center for the Study of International Relations in Paris, thinks if there is a cure for whatev

er it is that ails the French, it will not likely be had just by throwing the rascals out.

"There is a new kind of phobia," he said. "It is complicated. Some feel a loss of identity, a loss of control over their lives. There is the decay of Gaullism and then communism. First, the channel for the right is closed, then the channel for the left. People have no place to go."

Political ideology is more important in France than in many other nations. It is seen as the force that explains human behavior. Political developments, the French believe, reflect social change.

Which is not to say they lack a practical appreciation of their problems. Two are most prominent: the mounting xenophobic response toward the 3.5 million immigrants from North and West Africa, and unemployment, which stands near 10 percent.

Together, these two have brought forth a singular political development -- the rise of the National Front party under Jean-Marie Le Pen. Mr. Le Pen repels many of the French, even as he fascinates and attracts a growing number of them. He has a sure solution to the national discontent.

It is to round up the immigrants and put them into holding camps until they can be shipped back to where they came from, even if they arrived 20 years ago and now are French citizens.

And their children? There are about 5.5 million of them born in France. Their citizenship wouldn't be secure, either, nor their continued residence in France.

Expulsion of the immigrants also would alleviate the unemployment problem, at least statistically, because so many of the immigrants themselves are out of work.

Mr. Le Pen, according to another analyst of French political life who asked that her name not be used, has distorted France's idea of itself. That idea, or ideal, is of a France with a homogeneous culture, a generous nation with a tradition of offering asylum to the persecuted, the down and out.

The National Front leader also stirs memories the French wouldrather have left dormant. His program recalls the activities of the Vichy government bureaucrats who helped the Nazis deport to death camps about 76,000 French citizens who were Jews.

The National Front has put all of France's mainstream parties on the defensive. "It is now a force in French politics," Mr. Giesbert said.

Last week, it trounced the Socialists in a by-election in their own stronghold near Lille, and did well in five other municipal elections around the nation.

The best evidence of Mr. Le Pen's power is the imitation he has elicited from many of the traditional party leaders. They have resorted to the sordid rhetoric he specializes in, presumably in an attempt to win away some of his constituents.

Mr. Chirac, leader of the Gaullist Rally for the Republic, once referred to the "odors and noise" created by immigrant families. Former President Giscard D'Estaing (1974-1981), now head of the Union for French Democracy, referred to an immigrant "invasion," and would be almost as stingy with French citizenship as the leader of the National Front would be.

Even Mrs. Cresson was seduced into playing to the yahoo, anti-immigrant mentality. She raised the specter of massive deportations, suggesting on television that the government might resort to the use of charter planes.

The government at least tries to make it clear that when it talks of shipping people back to Africa, it is referring to illegal immigrants. Of these types of deportations, "there have never been so many as there are today," said the official close to Mrs. Cresson.

Jean-Marie Le Pen is a tough Breton with a taste for hot, Hitlerian oratory. It is thought he now might claim 20 percent of the votes in a national election. He clearly has made the French afraid, especially of themselves.


Mr. Hassner thinks the French are apprehensive about things other than immigrants and unemployment: Germany for one, the European Community for another.

"They are troubled by the faceless bureaucracy of the European Community, the opening of the borders [among the EC states set for this year]," he said.

"Germany is growing more and more important, and the French need to reconcile themselves to being a middle-range power," he said, adding, "This doesn't satisfy their expectations."

The joint leadership of Europe exercised by Paris and Bonn, for so many years the keystone of the Community, began to decay with German unification, the emergence of a nation of nearly 80 million in the heart of Europe.

France, with about 56 million, can never equal it in economic or political influence. That is the grim reality the French face today, and they don't like it. The younger generation has accepted this, said one analyst. It is harder on the World War II generation.

Finally, there are growing doubts about the European Community itself, or France's place in it. The French people had not thought much about what occurred at the December Community summit in Maastricht, Netherlands, or about what was agreed to there by Mr. Mitterrand.

Now they wonder whether a single European currency is such a good idea or, more profoundly, what the further integration and homogenization of Europe will mean to French uniqueness.

"French opinion on Maastricht has been passive," said an official attached to the prime minister's office. "That is because we have explained the policy very poorly."

He gave the impression the government would stimulate the kind of debate that occurred in Britain before Maastricht, and thereby again encourage the French to be good Europeans.

But even as he spoke a report appeared in the newspapers that a majority of Germans -- once the most enthusiastic people for Europe -- were losing their taste for further integration. Thus, there is something else to trouble the mind.

Still, by most objective measurements -- balance of trade, inflation rate, production levels, quality of life -- and by comparison with so many other nations in the world, the French really don't have much to justify their manifest unease. This makes the whole idea of the malaise even more mysterious.

Is it merely self-pity on a national scale?

Mr. Hassner, for one, is uncertain, but he recalls that the revolutionary outburst in Paris in May 1968 -- "those three weeks of quite charming madness, no authority anywhere, just three weeks of left-wing frenzy" -- was preceded by a similar and prevalent sense of vague unhappiness.

He was quick to say he was not suggesting a parallel. Circumstances were greatly different then. He said only, "Maybe the French mood is cyclical. We are usually so routine and and obedient. Once in a generation maybe we have to break out, get it all out of our system."

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