PARIS -- Some 30 million French voters will cast ballots toda in the first round of crucial legislative elections that are ultimately expected to give a huge parliamentary majority to an opposition conservative coalition.
In districts where no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote today, runoff elections are to be held March 28 between candidates receiving more than 12.5 percent of the vote in the first round. In the runoff, the top vote-getter is the victor even if he falls short of 50 percent.
The nation's complex system heavily favors the big parties that usually come in first or second in the initial round. As a result, while the conservative Union for France coalition may win only 40 percent of the votes today, it could well control 75 percent of the 577-member National Assembly after the runoff election.
The system also works against small parties. Candidates for an environmentalist alliance, the far-right National Front and the Communist Party may together take more than 30 percent of the votes today, yet the three groups will be lucky if they finish up with more than two dozen parliamentary seats between them.
The Socialist Party, which ran the government between 1981 and 1986 and from 1988 until now, is resigned to losing around half its current 247 seats. Its strength in Parliament is expected to mirror the 20 percent of votes it is forecast to win this weekend.
While the runoff election will define the shape of the new Parliament, the results of the first round will be analyzed mainly in the light of what most French consider to be the far more important race to pick a successor to President Francois Mitterrand in 1995.
It is just one of the peculiarities of France's political system that a Socialist government may be swept from office this month, yet a Socialist president will remain in the Elysee Palace for two more years, forced to cohabit uncomfortably with a conservative prime minister.
If the conservatives win this month, a new conservative government would be in charge of almost everything, with Mr. Mitterrand's powers reduced to overseeing foreign policy. France will in many ways be in a political holding pattern until a new president is chosen.
The elections are considered likely to bring a shake-up among opposition parties because many prominent figures are in danger of losing their seats, including the Communist Party leader, Georges Marchais, several Socialist ministers and the Socialists' front-runner for the presidential candidacy in 1995, Michel Rocard.
Recognizing their deep unpopularity, the Socialists now think their only hope of retaining the presidency in 1995 lies in forming a broad alliance with Communists and, above all, with environmentalists. Their chances of doing so will also become ZTC clearer in the next week.
Once the results of today's first round are in, hard bargaining will begin.