France split as presidential election nears
Whoever emerges victorious from the tight May 10 presidential race will face a firmly divided France. If Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand enters the Elysee Palace and goes ahead with his proposed reforms, anxious conservative political and business leaders have threatened to bring him to heel.
Another seven years of President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, on the other hand, would almost certainly engender mass resignation and frustration among the left, with the possibility of strikes and demonstrations.
"Either man is going to have a very rough road ahead of him," noted one European diplomat. "The trade unions have already hinted at trouble if the right gets back into power, and the right is not going to take nationalization under Mitterrand lying down. Then there are the Communists."
Even more than in the last presidential elections, in 1974, there is a strong feeling in both camps that for the first time since Charles de Gaulle's founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, the left has a good chance of winning. According to the last poll allowed before the election. Mitterrand leads Giscard d'Estaing by three percentage points.
Although US diplomats here say they have had good relations with the French Socialist Party for years, the prospect of a Communist-supported French government is less appealing than a continuation of the present administration. Mitterrand is generally pro-American and severely critical of Soviet foreign policy. He has called for a restructuring, however, of the NATO alliance, which would maintain a strong Europe but involve less dirct US influence. Mitterrand has also indicated he would slow French arms spending and seek to downplay France's "policeman" role in Africa as well.
The Socialist leader has proposed continued close relations with West Germany , but the extremely friendly rapport between Giscard and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, borned out by daily telephone calls and frequent meetings, would obviously be lacking. But the election of Mitterrand would bring a social democratic party into power in France. Unlike the West German ruling party, however, France would be forced to contend with a demanding Communist contingent anxious for a say in French policymaking.
Despite the noted unreliability of French polls, Giscard d'Estaing was obviously unnerved enough by the Socialist leader's strong showing in the first round April 26 to pull out all stops in persuading the French people that a left-wing government can mean only political and economic upheaval. In unabashedly "red under the bed" terms, the incumbent has been fervently hammering away at Mitterrand during his recent appearances, warning the country that the Socialists would remain hostages of the Communists no matter what.
Conservatives around France have also voiced fear at the prospect of a left-wing government. "It would be disastrous," noted Pierre Tari, a major winegrower and the mayor of a town in the Bordeaux region. "I think their economic program would only cause more inflation and unemployment. Wine industry workers in the same area, however, voted heavily in favor of Mitterrand during the first round.
The tension remains. Both candidates are pushing hard to attract the support of the eight other first-round candidates. Although Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, leader of the neo-Gaullist party, who reaped 18 percent, originally unenthusiastically came out in favor of Giscard d'Estaing in order to "block the left," he has now appealed to his voters to fully back Giscard in order to thwart what he considers Mitterrand's "dangerous" economic policies.
Various other senior Gaullists have announced their support for Giscard d'Estaing. But some Gaullists are also expected either to abstain or to vote for Mitterrand, thus seriously affecting Giscard d'Estaing's chances.
Traveling through the French provinces, this correspondent was struck by the number of textbook conservatives who said they preferred a socialist government to another seven years of Giscard.
As far as Mitterrand is concerned, most of the marginal left-wing party supporters will probably join his ranks. Communist leader Georges Marchais, who received barely 15 percent of the first-round ballot, the party's worst showing since 1936, has reluctantly agreed to grant the Socialist his electoral blessing.
The ecologists may also be tempted to support Mitterrand with his hazy opinions on a nuclear slowdown and energy diversification instead of Giscard d'Estaing's all-out atomic program. But a certain proportion may also prefer to abstain.
Another significant factor are the undecided swing-voters. Just under 20 percent of the French electorate abstained in the first round, but analysts expect a high turnout for the May 10 final election. In any case Giscard d'Estaing is also relying heavily on the triditon the French have of voting their hearts in the first round, but their wallets in the second.
The two politicians met face-to-face in an "american-style" televised debate May 5, which many observers throught might clinch the election. But the nearly two-hour debate, during which the antagonists plowed tediously through a hodgepodge of issues already discussed countless times, proved inconclusive.
Giscard d'Estaing had obviously hoped to achieve a repeat performance of his last presidential debate in 1974, when his shrewd and lively style was considered far superior to that of mitterrand. His performance, it is believed, swayed the undecided voters to his side.
This time, however, although the incumbent appeared more in control than his often boring opponent, Mitterrand managed to recoup in his summary with an impassioned plea for social change a nd anend to high unemployment, inflation, and the power of political cliques.