Paris — Apathy and fear. Politicians and pundits agreed that these two factors explain why the Socialist Party fell short of a predicted landslide in Sunday's first round of parliamentary elections, and now is expected to win only a slim majority in next week's runoff ballot.
Apathy, because more than 34 percent of voters stayed away from the polls, the most ever under the Fifth Republic. An emotional presidential campaign that ended a month ago tired the public of politicking, while predictions of an easy socialist victory following President Fran,cois Mitterrand's sweeping reelection encouraged left-wing supporters to abstain.
``I must tell all who stayed home'' that ``your participation in the second round is indispensable,'' said Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard.
Fear, because the French who took the time to cast their ballot did not want to give Mr. Mitterrand a mandate for too radical a socialist program. Moderate conservatives, running ahead of the poor showing by their brash presidential candidate, Jacques Chirac, did better than expected, winning almost 40 percent of the vote.
``The French have showed their will not to confide all powers in our country to one party,'' said former conservative President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing.
Non-ideological Socialists did better than the more traditional Socialist candidates.
Businessman Bernard Tapie won an impressive 37 percent of the vote in his Marseille district, 10 percentage points more than his Socialist predecessor. Although he faces a difficult runoff next Sunday, he remains confident.
``Voters don't want fantasies,'' Mr. Tapie said. ``They want something concrete.''
Extremes suffered in this move toward the concrete center. Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right National Front fell five points from its presidential scoring to just below 10 percent. And under the new majority-vote system, the front looks set to lose the 32 seats it won under the old proportional system.
The Communist Party did a little better than expected, scoring almost 11 percent, but majority voting also hurts them. Instead of their current 35 seats, the Communists can expect to obtain 10 to 15 seats in the next Assembly.
``The extremes feed on each other: When the Communists go up, the National Front goes down,'' says Ren'e Remond, a noted political scientist. ``Only two players are left in the major leagues.''
Of these two major-league players, the Socialists seem stronger. They are united and can count on receiving almost all Communist votes in the second round.
In contrast, the mainstream conservatives, divided into several uneasy factions, can't count on recuperating all of the National Front voters. In many Mediterranean voting districts, National Front candidates continue to pose a threat.
``The left seems strong enough to win a sufficient, if not unlimited, majority,'' says Jerome Jaffr'e, director of the Sofres polling institute. ``The right is only strong enough to limit its damages.''
Computer projections by Sofres show the Socialists poised to secure between 290 and 310 seats in the next 577-seat National Assembly. The mainstream conservatives are expected to take between 250 and 270 seats.
Other polling agencies suggest that the Socialists still could fail to win an absolute majority of 289 seats next Sunday. This uncertainty means intense bargaining over the next few days. Conservatives must decide whether to strike a bargain with Le Pen candidates, while the Socialists decide whether to concede some seats to non-Socialist candidates.
Before the vote, President Mitterrand called for an ``opening'' in French politics, saying he wanted to strike a partnership with the political center. If his Socialists captured too strong a majority, there would have been no need for him to share power with the centrists. A slim Socialist majority or a strong Socialist minority would make such a power-sharing arrangement indispensable.
```Opening' is no longer a gimmick,'' writes Serge July, editor of the Paris daily Lib'eration. ``It now is a necessity.''