As in the 1974 French presidential elections, the emergence of incumbent Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Socialist challenger Francois Mitterrand as the two contenders in the first round runoff has polarized the country once again into a classic left- and right-wing standoff.
Hardly intimidated by the rain, sleet, and even snow that swept through most of France April 26, more than 80 percent of the country's 36.6 million voters went to the polls to express their assessment of the outgoing president's seven-year term. Less than one-thrid of the electorate said they wanted seven more years of the same.
Leading the nation's 10 candidates in an otherwise uninspired election, Giscard scored just over 28 percent of the vote. Although the smiling and self-assured outgoing president declared himself satisfied with the result several hours after the polls closed, it is considered to be a poor showing for the incumbernt. He drew less than the 32.6 percent obtained in the 1974 first round elections, but slightly more than France's barrage of polls had predicted for 1981.
Mitterrand, on the other hand, although only in second place, managed to glean a significant 26 percent. Having narrowly lost the 1974 presidential election to Giscard on similar issues, there was barely restrained optimisim in the Socialist camp that the left's day is dawning.
Under the French electoral system, if no candidate receives a majority vote in the first round, the two leading candidates face each other in the second and final round. In this case, analyts expect the May 10 second round to be an even tighter race than last time.
Neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac, the whirlwind mayor of Paris, was eliminated from the race with only 18 percent. But he has emerged as a decisively new political force with which Giscard will have to reckon if he hopes to attract enough majority votes to help him pass the finishing post.
Only two months ago, the polls gave Chirac little chance of obtaining more than 10 percent. Not only was he energetically campaigning against two other Gaullists, former Prime Minister Michel Debre, and Marie-France Garaud, an exChiracian henchwoman, but also against Giscard -- not to speak of the left.
His flamboyant, American-style hand-grabbing and baby-kissing tactics appealed enourmously to the petit-bourgeoisie, farmers, and businessmen in traditionally conservative domains as well as "red" (communist) areas. By the eve of the election when he claimed he could beat Mitterrand into the second round, his campaign had created enough disarray to get both Giscard and Mitterrand worried by the "Effet Chirac."
For the French Communist Party (PCF), the first round spelled pure disaster when it was revealed that it had barely polled 15 percent. With the party normally accustomed to roughly 20 percent of the national vote, this startling development could force it to thorougly reexamine its strategy and could even lead, as some observers believe, to the ouster of leader Georges Marchais.
Lacking his usual, scathing defiance, Marchais was visibly tired and glum as he struggled to explain the PCF's upset. Denying that the resultmeant the waning of the party, Marchais acknowledged that the difficulties of the election might have forced some Communist supporters to vote "utile," that is, the left-wing candidate most likely to win.
There has been increasing disenchantment among traditional Communists, including numerous intellectuals, with the hard-line and often racist policies of the PCF. There is also the frustrated desire of many to support Mitterrand if only to have a man of the left in government.
Marchais however, did not declare whether the PCF would be prepared to endorse Mitterrand in the final round. The party's central committee, he said, will meet Tuesday to elaborate its position. "But there is no question of the Communist Party supporting a [Socialist] governement without Communist ministers ," he added.
The Socialists have refused to enter in any pre-election negotiations with the PCF as this might scare off centrist voters disillusioned with Giscard. They feel this would act more to their detriment than benefit. Rather than seek to make a deal with the Communist Party, Mitterrand hopes to attract supporters by appealing directly to the Communist electorate.
The right claims that the Socialists cannot hope to win without Communist support. "They will always remain hostage to the Communist no matter what they do," said Minister of Justice Alain Peyrefitte, an ardent Giscardian. "The first round was one of personal choice. But the second is the round of decision , the decision between a society of liberty or a society of [Marxist] collectivity."
The six marginal candidates in the first round -- two conservatives, three leftists, and one ecologist -- captured a consequential 12 percent of the vote. They have the power of determining the outcome of what promises to be an extremely close second round.