French President Grapples With Drop In Public Confidence

PRESIDENT Bush is not alone; a sharp decline in public confidence also threatens French President Francois Mitterrand.

After a year where the Gulf war, the collapse of the Soviet empire, European Community (EC) efforts at deeper integration, and France's place in the world generally were his primary preoccupations, Mr. Mitterrand is now confronting what he himself has called a "morose" domestic atmosphere.

Public confidence in Mitterrand, the government of Prime Minister Edith Cresson, and France's economic prospects are at an all-time low. Unlike Bush, Mitterrand is in office until 1995 and therefore is facing no personal electoral test. In March France will hold regional elections, which will be a bellwether for national legislative elections in 1993. Polls show national elections held today would deliver a firm majority to opposition conservative parties and a full blow to Mitterrand's ruling Socialists . The president would like to reverse that scenario by next year.

In addition, Mitterrand is considering calling two sets of referendums during the year, one on constitutional reforms required by the EC treaty revision agreed to in Maastricht, Netherlands, last month, and a second on other institutional reforms he says France needs to become a more effective democracy. One such change is his proposal to reduce the presidential term. "Even I find [seven years] to be a little long," Mitterrand says.

On top of all that, the Socialist Party this week has undergone a shake-up, designed to breathe new life into the party's sagging fortunes. The party chairman, Pierre Mauroy, stepped down on Tuesday and was replaced yesterday by National Assembly President Laurent Fabius. The appointment of Mr. Fabius, a former prime minister under Mitterrand and long considered the president's preferred prot, appeared to boost Mitterrand's chances of seeing the party he built managed to his liking - and responsive to hi s own domestic difficulties.

BUT many political analysts believe the changes reflect at least as strongly the Socialist Party barons' preoccupation with the presidential elections of 1995, and thus with what are already being called the party's "post-Mitterrand" prospects.

The election of Fabius as party first secretary, a post he has coveted for years, would not have been possible without the assent of former Prime Minister Michel Rocard, who saw it as a rock in the spokes of EC Commission President Jacques Delors's French presidential campaign wagon. In exchange for agreeing to Fabius's election, Mr. Rocard got a public designation from Mr. Mauroy as the Socialistsvirtual candidate" for the presidential elections - a hollow victory, since "virtual" is an ambiguous term i n French that can mean little more than "potential."

Close associates say Mitterrand holds out no hope that either a reshuffled Socialist leadership or economic conditions will change enough by March to put off a stunning Socialist defeat in the regional elections.

In their aftermath, the president is expected to push for a ministerial reshuffle that will bring more new faces to government, but which will likely keep Mrs. Cresson at the government's helm. Even though the very unpopular prime minister is believed to be dragging down the president's image, Mitterrand continues to speak of her performance in flattering terms.

Perhaps later in the year, however, some observers believe Mitterrand will tap the popular Mr. Delors to replace Cresson, in hopes that he can improve Socialist prospects by the 1993 elections.

Yet the realistic Mitterrand is not expecting any miracles, and appears to be prepared to accept working with a conservative party prime minister again, as he did from 1986 to 1988. "I already did it once," Mitterrand told members of the press this week. "It is not desirable, but I can stand it."

That remark was taken by observers to mean that the president plans to stay in office until 1995, come what may.

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