Embattled Socialists Face Ballot in France


Paris. -- Taking their cue from the standoff in Waco, the creators of French television's popular "Bebete Show" recently depicted President Francois Mitterrand, rifle in hand, entrenched the presidential Elysee Palace. The president, portrayed as a frog wearing a helmet, would go into a rage and fire away at his political opponents who had gathered outside to urge him to surrender.

The sketch captured the essence of the campaign leading to today's vote in the first round of parliamentary elections certain to result in a landslide victory for a conservative coalition against the ruling Socialists. Mr. Mitterrand, 76, is being urged by opposition politicians to accept the consequences of the election and resign. But with the president, who is suffering from prostrate cancer, making it clear he will serve out the remaining two years of his second seven-year term, most of the debate during the long campaign centered on whom Mr. Mitterrand should pick from the ranks of the conservatives to serve as the next prime minister.

In fact, the only novelty of a campaign whose outcome is known in advance was the suggestion by former prime minister and presidential candidate Michel Rocard to create a "political big bang" by abolishing the Socialist Party and replacing it with a coalition of reform Communists, centrists, environmentalists and moderate Socialists.

The fact that Mr. Rocard could suggest such a step and the favorable reception it received from leading Socialists says much about the state of the party after 12 years in power.

Indeed, the Socialists' image has been tarnished by a series of scandals ranging from the use of blood tainted with the HIV virus in transfusions to a $176,000 interest-free loan received by Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy from a businessman who was himself involved in an insider trading scandal.

"We have adopted all the values of the bourgeoisie," concludes Socialist Deputy Michel Pezet. He goes on to enumerate his party's many vices, including turning the acquisition of wealth into a virtue and preaching morality but not practicing it.

Given the circumstances, the disenchantment among voters and grass roots Socialists is understandable. One recent survey said 82 percent of the French are unhappy with the way their country is governed, and pre-election polls show the Socialists heading toward a defeat of Biblical proportions. The last polls before the election gave the two-party conservative coalition as many as 430 seats in the 575-seat National Assembly.

While the final outcome following the second round of voting on March 28 may be slightly more favorable to the Socialists, there is no doubt that the next government will come from the ranks of the conservatives, forcing them and Mr. Mitterrand to live with each other as best they can in a process called "cohabitation" -- which can be roughly translated as a temporary marriage of convenience.

As a result, the French political machine is likely to be blocked for the next two years, a Gallic version of gridlock even as the economy slides into recession and the European Community enters a crucial period in its effort to create a single currency and form common defense and foreign policies.

"The Socialists have succeeded in areas where they were not expected to do so and have failed where they had raised the most hopes," remarks labor leader Nicole Notat. Indeed, the Socialist decade has controlled inflation, created a strong French franc, modernized the Paris stock market and developed a high-technology industrial base. But at the same time, unemployment increased, social differences widened and corruption spread.

The major issue of the campaign has been unemployment, with official statistics showing the number of jobless workers doubled to 3 million since the Socialists were first elected in 1981. But because successive governments have been unable to deal with the problem, politicians are being particularly careful not to make promises the electorate knows they will not be able to keep. In its platform, the right has promised to create jobs and spur economic growth by reducing the high social charges French companies must pay on employees, lowering taxes and privatizing many state-owned industries. Their free-market fever of previous years has been tempered, however, by their defeat in the 1988 presidential race.

With little debate on the issues, the campaign has been dominated by speculation about whom Mr. Mitterrand will name as the next prime minister, with the choice based as much on the results of this election as on strategic planning for the race that really counts, the 1995 presidential campaign.

The president has prepared for the cohabitation ahead by naming close aides to key posts in the bureaucracy and by indicating he intends to maintain control of foreign policy with recent visits to Washington and Moscow. He also sponsored a conference in Paris earlier this month in a fruitless effort to mediate an end to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Mr. Mitterrand even ordered the installation of a satellite dish and decoder on the grounds of the Elysee so he can receive diplomatic cables directly from French embassies.

While Mitterrand has vowed to enter the period of cohabitation without "arms or armor and without fear," political opponents remember his tenacious opposition to the conservative government during the previous cohabitation between 1986 and and his defeat of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac in the presidential election of 1988. Mr. Chirac, the head of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic Party that is expected to win the largest number of deputies in today's voting, has vowed not to repeat that bitter experience and wants Mr. Mitterrand to name former Finance Minister Edouard Balladur prime minister.

Such an arrangement may be convenient to both men, allowing Mr. Chirac to concentrate on his presidential ambitions while permitting the president to work with the more amenable Mr. Balladur. But Mr. Chirac has warned Mr. Mitterrand not to interfere with the new government. "Nothing and no one will keep us from enforcing our policies," he says.

Once the new government is in place, Mr. Mitterrand is likely to remain silent for the next several months, giving the new leaders time to make mistakes and watching the brewing battle for the presidency between Mr. Chirac and former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the leader of the centrist Union for French Democracy. Although they belong to the same political camp, the two men are arch enemies, with Mr. Giscard determined to become president again to avenge his defeat for re-election in 1981.

Barring an unexpected development, the likelihood is that Mr. Mitterrand and the right-wing government will be forced to work together as best they can, with the president primarily concerned about his place in history and Mr. Chirac and Mr. Giscard fighting for what they know is their last chance for the presidency.

The "Bebete Show" will have plenty to laugh at during the next two years.

Eduardo Cue is chief of the Paris bureau of United Press International.

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