French Right Set to Win Elections

But the right-wing coalition is likely to splinter soon over trade, EC, and domestic politics

WITH the French preparing to go to the polls March 21 for the first of two rounds of national elections, two things now seem clear.

First, the right wing will hand a crushing defeat to the ruling Socialists of President Francois Mitterrand, taking perhaps 80 percent of National Assembly seats by the final round March 28.

And a newly empowered right may very soon become nostalgic for the comfortable life of the opposition, given the unraveling economy it will be handed and the preprogrammed internal conflicts it will face on issues ranging from the economy, Europe, and how to work with the Socialist president.

"The post-election period is going to be very difficult for the right, because immediately the natural differences among their leaders on questions like the economy, unemployment, the franc, Europe, and immigration, will boil up," says Gerard Collomb, a Socialist and member of the Lyon regional government. "It's our good fortune that their difficulties will precede the presidential elections of 1995." An eye to 1995

With the outcome of this month's parliamentary elections an all but foregone conclusion, attention has turned to the presidential race two years hence. And there the Socialists can hardly be counted out - especially given the divisions that most observers expect to plague the right.

Interest in how the right will manage its internal conflicts has focused attention on issues such as whether France should abandon its "strong franc" policy in favor of a floating currency - and the lower interest rates and subsequently higher employment rates that a devalued currency would encourage.

Most of the leaders of both the Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) and the center-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), the right's two major parties, support continuing the Socialist government's strong-franc policy.

A few others, however, most notably those who led the campaign against French ratification of the European Community's Maastricht Treaty, are adamantly pushing a more nationalist economic policy favoring lower interest rates over close economic alignment with Germany.

Uncertainty over this debate can be expected to weaken the franc at least until the elections are over and Mr. Mitterrand appoints a new prime minister.

But interest in the right-wing's internal conflicts has also placed a spotlight on certain key parliamentary races, including an internal battle here in Lyon pitting the city's mayor against a well-known local industrialist, both of whom claim to be the legitimate candidate of the united right.

Alain Merieux, director of a prestigious medical-products corporation here and RPR member, is challenging Lyon Mayor Michel Noir for the National Assembly seat Mr. Noir holds.

Noir, who quit the RPR in 1990 in favor of an "independent" label, says Mr. Merieux was put up by "Paris" - specifically the Parisian mayor, former prime minister, and RPR presidential hopeful Jacques Chirac - in retaliation for Noir's having left the party.

"Lyon came under siege from Paris in 1793, and 200 years later it's happening again," says Jacques Oudot, Noir's deputy for municipal cultural affairs. It is an argument that garners a certain sympathy in Lyon, which has long resented playing second fiddle to Paris.

Within the Merieux camp, on the other hand, aides emphasize that it was Noir who caused Lyon's estrangement from the "family of the right" by leaving the RPR, and that Merieux simply wants to ensure that Lyon is heard in the coming right-wing government.

"If the RPR-UDF team is in power, the district is better off represented by someone ready to play along," says Marie-Charlotte Czerny, a spokeswoman for the Merieux campaign. "We don't want Lyon to be out of the game." Crushing a mutiny

Observers say Mr. Chirac does indeed want to deliver a knockout blow to Noir - both to crush the ill-fated mutiny that Noir initiated with several other rising stars of the right against the traditional parties; and to secure Lyon as a key center of support for his 1995 presidential bid.

"Chirac wants to kill [Noir] as a message against any more waivering in the ranks," says one right-wing senator. "Beyond that, putting a lock on Paris and Lyon is part of Chirac's presidential strategy."

Others see Chirac's move as part of a new resolve by France's traditional parties to take back ground lost to new political movements, including the independents.

"It's the revenge of the parties," says Michel Foucher, director of the European Geopolitical Observatory here, "but it will only be a temporary revenge."

The traditional right will quickly face mounting discredit after the elections, Mr. Foucher says, because as a result of France's parliamentary electoral system the right is expected to win 80 percent of the seats with only about 40 percent of the vote.

On the left, the Socialists are headed for a full post-election recomposition of their movement, as prefigured in former Prime Minister Michel Rocard's recent call for a "big bang" creating a new party encompassing the country's center-left and progressive forces.

Former Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius said on March 11 the new party was likely to drop the "Socialist" name in favor of something closer to "social-democratic."

Mr. Rocard clearly hopes to protect his designation as the Socialists' "virtual" presidential candidate for 1995.

But a recent poll suggests he could lose his parliamentary seat, complicating his task.

National polls have shown little wavering in the 40 percent support for the right, with the Socialists moving up a few notches to about 20 percent, largely at the expense of the two ecology parties. Split weakens the right

In Lyon, many observers believe Chirac's strategy will work and Noir will be defeated - especially if the ecology candidate earns the 12.5 percent of the district's voters needed to qualify for the second round March 28.

But in Noir's eyes such strategizing will only deepen the right's divisions and make electing a president from the right more difficult.

"[The right] put up two [presidential] candidates instead of one in 1981 and '88, and both times we suffered defeat," says Noir. "Unless we can get beyond our differences and unite behind one candidate, then [in 1995] we'll be defeated again."

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