MAYENNE, France -- Once proverbially cocksure about their God-ordained place in the cosmos, the people of France are now more likely to be worried, perplexed and wary.
As a nation, they no longer know where they are going, what kind of society they want, who to trust, or how France will fit into a fast-changing Europe.
With le doute (doubt) as its unwanted but persistent companion, France goes to the polls tomorrow, called by President Jacques Chirac to elect a new National Assembly as he begins the third year of a seven-year term.
"It's time to take a new step," Chirac has told the French, explaining why he called an election 10 months early.
He asked voters to give a "shared elan" to his effort to transform a conservative society into a freer one with fewer taxes and less government, and one eligible for the first batch of countries admitted to the single European currency next year.
But never has the elite, including the semi-caste the French call the "political class," been so suspect or despised, or so seemingly incapable of delivering what it promises.
The mandarins who still run France have been besmirched by repeated corruption scandals and multibillion-dollar oceans of red ink at Air France, Credit Lyonnais bank, GAN insurance and other state-owned enterprises.
The acts of Chirac himself, one recent opinion poll found, are judged "satisfactory" by just 22 percent of voters.
Though dynamic and as affable as a French peasant talking about this season's crop, the 65-year-old neo-Gaullist from rural Correze has failed to deliver on his campaign pledge to bridge France's "social fracture" and reconcile social justice and economic growth.
More than 3.1 million French are jobless, a record. Strikes and demonstrations break out whenever authorities try to trim costs in the generous welfare system and at sick state-owned companies.
Hundreds of thousands of young French people have never worked in their lives, while others have been out of a job for decades.
The French, meanwhile, have the dubious honor of underwriting the most lavishly supported bureaucracy in the G-7 group of leading industrialized nations.
No less than 54.1 percent of the national wealth (vs. 33 percent in the United States) is gobbled up and spent by French officialdom.
Will things change? Even the incumbents say they must.
With such a morose state of affairs after 14 years of the late Francois Mitterrand's Socialist presidency and four years of day-to-day government by back-to-back rightist premiers -- Edouard Balladur and Alain Juppe -- one might expect that a majority of the French would wholeheartedly embrace change.
But it's not the case.
Chirac and Juppe, who is even more unpopular than the president, now talk about the need to cut red tape, curtail government spending and free up economic entrepreneurs to let their ventures rip.
Ordinary people, left and right, are suspicious.
The opposition Socialists, who lost control over the National Assembly in the last legislative election in 1993, want another chance.
"Let's change futures," is the campaign catch-phrase of the party, led by former economics professor Lionel Jospin, 59.
With the Communists as their restless allies, the Socialists promise more tax-financed pump-priming to help create 700,000 jobs, and want to further accelerate economic growth by negotiating an increase in wages and a reduction in the work week, from 39 to 35 hours.
But not only is Socialist competence widely suspect after 14 years of President Mitterrand, but Jospin's program flies in the face of a Europe-wide trend, illustrated in the Labor Party's landslide in Britain, that shows old left-wing ideas no longer have much appeal.
France bars publication of voter polls in the week before elections.
In earlier polls, the French appeared ready to grudgingly allow the right to maintain its majority in the 577-seat parliament.
The election: About 40 million voters in France and overseas territories are eligible to cast ballots for 6,243 candidates for the 577-seat National Assembly. Candidates with at least 12.5 percent of the vote advance to a June 1 runoff.
The legislature: In the current National Assembly, President Jacques Chirac's Rally for the Republic has 258 seats, the centrist Union for French Democracy has 206, the Socialist Party has 63 and the Communist Party, 24.
Source: Associated Press
Pub Date: 5/24/97