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French Socialists -- Madame Mayor included -- face voters

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 1983

Dreux, France

In six years as mayor of this French industrial town, Socialist Francoise Gaspard has built an enviable record of intelligent management. Yet in this Sunday's municipal elections, Madame Gaspard faces political extinction.

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Two opposition candidates are challenging her, and scoring points with voters on the issues of the economy, immigration, and crime.

Nationwide, these same issues are turning the local elections into the most strenuous test of President Francois Mitterrand's Socialists and his Communist allies since they came to power in May 1981.

Like midterm elections in the United States, a sizable protest vote is traditionally registered here in local elections against whoever is in power. In the last municipal election in 1977, when Valery Giscard d'Estaing was in office , the Socialists and Communists captured 154 of the 221 French cities with more than 30,000 inhabitants.

This time, the opposition hopes to return to power with a landslide victory. It has a chance: Polls show Mitterrand's popularity has fallen substantially in the past two years.

Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Party's general secretary, has been talking publicly of losing at least 15 big towns. But privately, despite some recent, more promising polls, the Socialists fear that their losses could be as high as 60 towns.

Such a poor showing would not bring down Mitterrand's government. It would, however, weaken his political standing in the country, limiting his ability to carry out the Socialist agenda during the last five years of his presidency.

The left's problems are clearly illustrated in Dreux, a working-class town of 35,000 in the province of Normandy, west of Paris. During the Middle Ages, the town served as the burial ground for French kings. Today, Renault and Societe Radiotechnique among others, have helped turn a pretty, rural village into grimy blocks of industrialization.

In 1977, Francoise Gaspard won 54 percent of the vote and broke the right's 12-year grip on town hall. She won, like many of her Socialist colleagues, because she played on voter discontent with the then government's austerity program. To a town already suffering from economic downturn - in 1976, one of its largest factories, the Actim heavy machinery company, closed down - she offered a fresh alternative to the rule of the conservative Jean Cauchon.

But if Madame Gaspard offered change, she also offered responsible management. Just as with Francois Mitterrand on the national level, Francoise Gaspard avoided scenarios of class warfare. The strategy succeeded in sapping the power of the local Communist Party as well as a strongly-based Radical Party.

After taking office, Madame Gaspard proved to be an effective administrator. Observers say she worked well with the business community, avoiding further shutdowns and even luring some new business into the area. Meanwhile, she sponsored a modest urban renewal program, renovating certain areas of the town with solar home projects.

Perhaps most importantly, though, she livened up the town. Main Street was turned into a pedestrian mall, and many sports and social groups were established. As a result, even the conservative weekly magazine, l'Express, recently described Dreux as the best administered municipality for social affairs.

So why does Madame Gaspard have serious political problems? Dynamic as she is , many here complain that she is cold and authoritarian. But all observers say most of Madame Gaspard's problems are economic, not personal.