France's Sour Mood [cf: ...and Europe's Future]

FOR French President Francois Mitterrand and his country, the results of France's regional elections March 22 and 29 presage a time of further drift and political malaise. Worse, the returns in the voting for members of 22 regional councils may reflect deeper currents of political unrest that will buffet the movement toward European unity (see the following editorial).

The balloting by an unexpectedly high turnout of French voters (nearly 70 percent) was an angry repudiation not only of Mr. Mitterrand's Socialist Party, but of France's entire political establishment. The Socialists, who control the National Assembly, took only 18.3 percent of the vote. Yet their mainstream opponents, an alliance of two center-right parties, failed to capitalize: The moderate conservatives captured only 33 percent of the vote, down from previous elections.

Instead, large gains were registered by anti-establishment parties, especially the ultra-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen (13.9 percent) and two environmental parties (a total of 14.7 percent). No doubt some voters rallied to the splinter parties' positions. But many others cast protest votes against the Socialists - which, after Mitterrand's 11 years in office, have run out of steam and ideas - and against the mainstream opposition for offering only me-too options.

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Mitterrand may try to shore up his support by firing unpopular Prime Minister Edith Cresson. But the most highly regarded replacement, European Commission President Jacques Delors, might not accept what he could regard as a poisoned chalice.

Mitterrand also could fiddle with the election rules before next year's parliamentary elections to dilute the anticipated strength of the conservative alliance. But if he flip-flopped to restore proportional representation in the assembly (which he earlier jettisoned), Mitterrand would permit the smaller parties, including the racist and xenophobic National Front, to acquire legislative beachheads. This could usher in a return to the fragmented, chaotic politics of bygone eras.

Whichever choices he makes, Mitterrand is likely to occupy an increasingly frustrating and marginalized position in the remaining three years of his term.

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