Paris — French conservatives were the ones embroiled in a hot public feud earlier this month, to the perverse joy of the those on the left. But last week, the Socialist Party found itself suddenly torn. The snickering quickly changed sides.
With nine months before the next legislative elections and polls showing them certain to lose their majority in the National Assembly, the Socialists have a prime minister pulling toward the center, a party first secretary pulling toward the left, and a President who has yet to show his hand.
That doesn't even count the popular former minister who has announced his own bid for president, or the renewed hostilities between the Socialists and their erstwhile partners in government, the Communists.
Neo-Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac, who has spent the last few weeks trading barbs with his fellow leaders on the right, confessed the spectacle ``kind of makes [him] smile.''
The main rift that divides the Socialists runs between youthful Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, who is trying to broaden the party's base toward the center with what he calls a ``republican front,'' and first secretary Lionel Jospin, who wants to keep the Socialists true to their leftist tradition.
Political commentators have also noted an emerging personal rivalry between the two men over who will lead the election campaign and ultimately emerge as heir to President Franois Mitter-rand.
At a rally in Marseille, Mr. Fabius launched the Socialists' campaign for the parliamentary elections with fierce attacks on conservatives and Communists alike.
Speaking beneath a banner calling members to ``modernize and rally,'' he planted himself squarely between ``savage liberalism'' on the right and ``demagoguery'' on the left.
Mr. Jospin seems willing to accept loss rather than turn toward the center. He has been much more cautious in condemning the Communists.
Asked last month how the Socialists could hope to govern without a broader base, Jospin acknowledged it was an important question, then replied: ``When you don't have a good answer, you don't give one.''
The latest polls show the Socialists likely to win only about 20 percent of the vote next spring. Jospin has suggested the party might carry 30 percent of the seats and struggle on as a mildly influential minority party.
Jospin was said to be incensed that the prime minister had jumped the gun in the legislative campaign with the Marseille speech, apparently usurping the first secretary's role as party leader.
Their split comes on the heels of the announcement by former Agriculture Minister Michel Rocard that he will run for president in 1988. Long a popular figure in the Socialist Party, Mr. Rocard resigned in April to protest the government's electoral reform plan. He has been something of a thorn in the Socialists' side ever since.
Rocard has so far steered clear of the Fabius-Jospin exchange, talking instead of the party's need to ``admit that we have changed.''
Adding still further to the confusion is bickering between the Socialists and the Communists, which has reached new levels of bitterness.
On June 5, a group of some 200 Communists tried to take over an old, unprofitable ball-bearing factory just south of Paris to protest the decision to close it down. The government sent in riot police to fend off the raid, and some 60 people on both sides were injured in the clash.
The Communist newspaper L'Humanit'e denounced the government move with the headline: ``Aggression.'' The Socialists responded with accusations of ``demagoguery.''
Still more fuel for the flames came from a controversial documentary about a group of resistance fighters in World War II and their links to the Communist Party. The film ``Terrorists in Retirement'' details the exploits of an Armenian resistance fighter, Missak Manouchian, and his followers, all of whom were foreign and most of whom were Jews.
Mr. Manouchian and his band were caught and executed by Germans. The film implies they had been betrayed by Communists who wanted to play up their own role in the resistance and play down any help from non-French forces.
When the Communists denounced the film, French television's High Authority had it canceled. That touched off cries of censorship which subsided only when the film was rescheduled for broadcast on July 2. The Communists hit the roof again, accusing Mr. Mitterrand himself of ordering that the film be aired.
Noticeable amid the disarray and denouncement is the silence from the 'Elys'ee Palace, concerning both the growing militancy of the Communists and the quickening confusion among the Socialists. Mitterrand's public appearances lately have been restricted to the ceremonial chores of welcoming visiting heads of state.
Still, the President may have to step in soon. He does not face reelection three more years, but he will need as large a leftist bloc as possible to keep from being chased from office by a conservative majority in the assembly.