Tide Turns for French Leadership. After weeks of labor unrest, premier buoyed by strong economy and political successes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AFTER weeks of strikes by public-sector workers that made life here miserable, things are now looking up for French President Fran,cois Mitterrand and Prime Minister Michel Rocard. The economy not only survived the labor unrest, it is buoyant.

The conservative opposition, which failed to profit from the disorder, remains weak and divided.

As a result, Mr. Rocard is now on the offensive.

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As France prepares to celebrate the bicentennial of its revolution, he hopes to overcome 1789's enduring legacy of polarized politics between right and left. His goal: to construct a broad political consensus with a center-left coalition.

``We must face France's important problems together,'' the prime minister told a group of journalists last week. ``This is my most important message for the New Year.''

Not long before, pundits and fellow politicians predicted that Rocard's government would not survive to see the bicentennial celebration.

His own socialists were complaining about the prime minister's moderate, free-market views, advising him to give striking workers a pay raise.

How else, they asked, could he call himself a supporter of the working class?

Conservatives, meanwhile, hoped to capitalize on the strikes. They refused to take up Rocard's offer to join his government, and Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac called for a vote of confidence in the National Assembly.

The biggest criticism was philosophical. Rocard's pragmatic, problem-solving style lacked a compelling vision or a grand design. Political analyst Alain Duhamel titled a stinging full-page editorial, ``France without a Horizon.''

``Rocard has a vision - pragmatic reform - but he hides it like a secret of a shameful family,'' Mr. Duhamel wrote. ``His own supporters are looking for some anchors and the simple citizens don't know where they are,'' he adds.

But then the tide turned.

Rocard settled the strikes while holding the line on wage increases. An end-of-the-year forecast by the National Statistics Institute predicted that the economy would continue to expand in 1989 by more than 3 percent.

Unemployment, now stuck at 10.5 percent, soon could fall to single digits, economists predict, as companies invest to meet surging consumer demand.

``The figures are very encouraging,'' comments Genvieve Cattan of the Finance Ministry. ``Even the most optimistic of observers hadn't hoped for them to be so good.''

On the basis of the economy's strength, the socialists easily survived the censure motion. A group of 40 ``centrist'' delegates from the opposition abstained. Their leader, Pierre Mehaignerie, called the motion ``premature.''

Rocard's long-range goal is to woo these centrists into a formal coalition through dialogue and consultation. Centrist leaders participated in the negotiations that led to the settlement of the conflict between French settlers and native Melanesians in New Caledonia. Rocard also incorporated their opinions in his 1989 budget.

``I've tried to reach solutions by consensus rather than force,'' the prime minister said, ``and I'm not doing badly.''

Another part of this opening to the center requires taking a tough line with the socialists' old communist allies, who had their CGT trade union lead the unpopular public workers strikes. Rocard has complied. He angrily denounced the party's ``Stalinist vision of the future.''

Polls show that the French want moderate government and approve of Rocard's pragmatic style.

During the strikes, the prime minister's popularity plunged below 40 percent. Since then, it has bounced back.

A recent poll shows that 63 percent of Frenchmen consider Rocard a competent leader. According to a Louis Harris Institute poll, 44 percent of Frenchmen want to see the formation of a new, independent centrist party.

That wish won't translate into an immediate reality. Municipal elections are scheduled for March, and French party machines have not adapted to the pragmatism sweeping the country.

The local battles will be conducted along old-fashioned lines, with the socialists and communists running in alliance against a united opposition.

``It's frustrating, all right,'' wrote Pierre-Brousolette, a political columnist in the weekly L'Express. ``Just at the moment when they show they want to be governed at the center by the center, the two camps harden the tone.''

Only after the municipal elections might the long-awaited recomposition of the French political landscape take place.

For June's European parliamentary elections, the centrists might present their own list of candidates. After showing their independence from the other conservative groups, they might be ready to negotiate a coalition agreement with Rocard.

A broad-based coalition would signal the end of revolutionary ``right-left ideology.'' In an ironic twist, this bicentennial year would mark the beginning of a new era ``of political counter-revolution,'' concludes Emmanuel Todd in his recent book, ``The New France.''

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