Fabius: popular minister in an unpopular government

Buzzwords abound in this most political of European capitals to explain the latest riddle of French public opinion. Just why is it that dashing young Prime Minister Laurent Fabius grows more popular by the day, while his government and its policies languish in the polls?

``White gloves,'' says one opposition leader, charging that Mr. Fabius never digs his hands into the tough issues.

An ``umbrella'' effect, says a political consultant who argues that the prime minister has been protected by the unpopularity of President Franois Mitterrand in recent political storms. If the genial Mr. Fabius had come to power in the United States, the pundits would probably also be talking about a solid coat of Teflon.

A month after France's Socialists suffered a rout in local elections, a couple of weeks after the government proposed an unpopular electoral reform package, and even as Mr. Mitterrand's support withers away, none of the ill feeling seems to stick to Laurent Fabius.

And with legislative elections looming next spring, Mr. Fabius may represent the Socialist Party's best hope for any sort of a comeback.

After nine months in office, the carefully projected Fabius image is that of a bright, diligent, and tough manager. A graduate of the prestigious Ecole Nationale d'Administration, Fabius has been a part of the Mitterrand inner circle since his early days as a Socialist.

He paints himself as a modern man with traditional values. ``What themes do we have? Employment, research, training, freedom, law and order,'' he said in one of his frequent television appearances.

His official biography speaks of his admiration for Leon Blum, yet press accounts also detail how he turned up at a pop concert and continues his Sunday afternoon routine of going out to the movies.

Fabius tries to show that he is active, energetic, and fit. After a recent ride in a Mirage 2000 fighter plane, a rather pale prime minister gamely hopped out of the cockpit to chat with the assembled reporters and assure them that no, he had not been scared.

In a nation where polls show the electorate is increasingly dissatisfied with politicians, Fabius' efforts seem to be paying off. Last month, one poll showed that 55 percent of the French had confidence in Fabius, while only 41 percent said the same about Mitterrand. Significantly, many of those who say they like the prime minister add that they don't think much of his policies.

Fabius was probably bound to emerge with a certain base of popular support, if only in comparison to Pierre Mauroy, his embattled predecessor.

Youth and freshness are also on his side, amid a well-worn field of political contenders. Mitterrand first ran for president in 1965. The leading opposition candidates are former President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing and former Prime Ministers Jacques Chirac and Raymond Barre.

Conservative political consultant Thierry Saussez accuses Fabius of practicing politics ```a l''americaine'' -- making statements full of popular images and symbols rather than the nitty-gritty of policy and program. The prime minister has ``fully recognized the influence of the media,'' Mr. Saussez said. ``He is one of the first French politicians to have accepted this dimension.''

For whatever reason the Fabius magic works, it is confounding his opponents. Even though his government implements a tough austerity budget or introduces controversial reforms, Fabius's personal ratings continue to rise.

When the government announced its plan for a new electoral system of proportional representation, there was outrage on all sides. Michel Rocard, agriculture minister and a popular Socialist star in his own right, resigned in protest. There were even questions about whether the party might face a rift.

Fabius simply explained that the new system was more ``fair'' and boarded a plane for a long-planned diplomatic visit to Singapore and South Korea. When he returned two weeks ago, the shouting about electoral reform was still heated and the pollsters dutifully took a reading of public opinion: Mitterrand was still losing support, electoral reform was widely unpopular, and during his absence, Fabius . . . was still picking up points.

It may all be a bubble of goodwill that is waiting to burst, but if Fabius can convert some of his personal stock into support for the whole Socialist program, he could prove to be a valuable weapon for Franois Mitterrand.

Proportional representation is likely to bring the far-right National Front into the National Assembly next year, and many analysts have predicted a split in the conservative opposition. The two more moderate conservative parties announced an alliance last week, but Giscard, Barre, and Chirac are still jostling for position. If their attempt at union fails, the Socialists might be able to form some centrist governing coalition.

Amid the confusion, a figure with wide appeal -- a figure like Laurent Fabius -- might be well placed to take charge. Mitterrand would then have time to brush up his own image before the presidential elections in 1988.

The odds are long indeed, and it is far too early to predict whether Mitterrand and Fabius can pull it off.

``For the moment, we don't see that Fabius is having any effect on [the overall popularity of] the left,'' says Jerome J'affre, political director for the Sofres polling group. But at the very least, Mr. J'affre says, the Fabius phenomenon has given Mitterrand ``a trump card at a time when he didn't have very many left.''

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