French Socialists -- Madame Mayor included -- face voters

In six years as mayor of this French industrial town, Socialist Francoise Gaspard has built an enviable record of intelligent management. Yet in this Sunday's municipal elections, Madame Gaspard faces political extinction.

Two opposition candidates are challenging her, and scoring points with voters on the issues of the economy, immigration, and crime.

Nationwide, these same issues are turning the local elections into the most strenuous test of President Francois Mitterrand's Socialists and his Communist allies since they came to power in May 1981.

Like midterm elections in the United States, a sizable protest vote is traditionally registered here in local elections against whoever is in power. In the last municipal election in 1977, when Valery Giscard d'Estaing was in office , the Socialists and Communists captured 154 of the 221 French cities with more than 30,000 inhabitants.

This time, the opposition hopes to return to power with a landslide victory. It has a chance: Polls show Mitterrand's popularity has fallen substantially in the past two years.

Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Party's general secretary, has been talking publicly of losing at least 15 big towns. But privately, despite some recent, more promising polls, the Socialists fear that their losses could be as high as 60 towns.

Such a poor showing would not bring down Mitterrand's government. It would, however, weaken his political standing in the country, limiting his ability to carry out the Socialist agenda during the last five years of his presidency.

The left's problems are clearly illustrated in Dreux, a working-class town of 35,000 in the province of Normandy, west of Paris. During the Middle Ages, the town served as the burial ground for French kings. Today, Renault and Societe Radiotechnique among others, have helped turn a pretty, rural village into grimy blocks of industrialization.

In 1977, Francoise Gaspard won 54 percent of the vote and broke the right's 12-year grip on town hall. She won, like many of her Socialist colleagues, because she played on voter discontent with the then government's austerity program. To a town already suffering from economic downturn - in 1976, one of its largest factories, the Actim heavy machinery company, closed down - she offered a fresh alternative to the rule of the conservative Jean Cauchon.

But if Madame Gaspard offered change, she also offered responsible management. Just as with Francois Mitterrand on the national level, Francoise Gaspard avoided scenarios of class warfare. The strategy succeeded in sapping the power of the local Communist Party as well as a strongly-based Radical Party.

After taking office, Madame Gaspard proved to be an effective administrator. Observers say she worked well with the business community, avoiding further shutdowns and even luring some new business into the area. Meanwhile, she sponsored a modest urban renewal program, renovating certain areas of the town with solar home projects.

Perhaps most importantly, though, she livened up the town. Main Street was turned into a pedestrian mall, and many sports and social groups were established. As a result, even the conservative weekly magazine, l'Express, recently described Dreux as the best administered municipality for social affairs.

So why does Madame Gaspard have serious political problems? Dynamic as she is , many here complain that she is cold and authoritarian. But all observers say most of Madame Gaspard's problems are economic, not personal.

Like the opposition's three national leaders, Jacques Chirac, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, and former Prime Minister Raymond Barre, the local opposition has kept up a relentless assault on the dismal performance of France's economy during the past two years. Nationally, this has meant attacking the fall in the value of the franc versus the dollar and the huge rise of foreign debt and trade deficit. Locally, it has meant attacking the town's increasing taxes and debt.

''We have the highest corporate taxes in the country and one of the greatest levels of indebtedness,'' complains the neo-Gaullist candidate, Rene Jean Fontanille. ''We have to reduce both taxes and debts to restore confidence.''

In defending her record, Madame Gaspard points to the Socialists' success in reducing inflation to less than 10 percent (though January's figure of 0.9 percent broke this barrier) and insists that she has leveled off unemployment to around 8.5 percent.

''Of course that leaves too many out of work,'' she says. ''But considering the fact that we are an industrial town, it's not bad.''

High unemployment remains an explosive issue in the campaign, however, especially as it relates to immigration. Dreux's immigrants make up about a fifth of the town's population. Like local opposition politicians throughout the country, Dreux's oppositions have formed an alliance with the avowedly racist National Front. They are campaigning on the theme that France wouldn't have 2 million unemployed if it did not have 4 million or so foreign workers.

''Immigrants cost us dearly,'' says the local National Front candidate Jean-Pierre Stirbois. ''They take our jobs, our taxes, and bring a culture that cannot be assimilated with our own. My neighbors don't want to hear any more Arab music.''

Madame Gaspard acknowledges that Dreux cannot accept more immigrant workers without causing a violent eruption. Strains between French and Arab residents in the town are evident at once. Enter a local cafe, Au Bon Coin, and on one side of the bar, unemployed Frenchmen are relaxing. On the other, a group of North Africans are gathered in animated conversation.

Many of the Frenchmen blame the immigrants for the town's rising crime rate. ''They are thiefs,'' one said. ''I am scared in my own town.'' With feelings like this, it is no accident that crime has become the third major election issue, after the economy and immigration. Figures released recently show that car robberies and house break-ins increased by 25 percent in 1982 compared to 1981.

This increase follows the national average. The local police chief, Bertrand Jutge also complains that he does not have enough policemen. Madame Gaspard promises that 10 more policemen will come on duty this month after they finish their training. But the opposition remains dissatisfied.

Still, it is far from certain she will lose. The opposition is not united behind the pact with the National Front. Because of this split, it is expected Madame Gaspard will win a plurality in Sunday's voting. But she almost certainly will not win a majority, and that means she will have to face the stronger of the opposition candidates the following Sunday, March 13.

The only sure thing about the polling nationwide is that it will be seen as a referendum on Socialist government. The presence of the National Front distorts the clarity of the test. Nevertheless, the issues are clear.

''Dreux is like everywhere else,'' Mr. Robinet said. ''It is going through a tough time. The vote will show if the people believe the opposition's charges that the Socialists have ruined the economy and the country.''

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