France rumbles as election-year political machine gets into gear

These days, French conversations center on a more passionate subject than even the traditional topics of food and fashion -- politics. It is election year. For 12 long months, starting with this week's nationwide local elections and continuing through parliamentary elections next March, the country's Socialist leaders and constitution face a severe test.

So far, the conservative opposition holds a commanding majority. In the first round of voting this week, it won 59 to 60 percent of the total vote. The Socialists took only 26 percent, while the Communists, who are estranged from their old allies on the left, polled 12.6 percent.

Many conservatives won outright majorities and thus will be exempted from runoff elections March 17.

About 59 percent of the nation's 18 million voters took part in the elections, choosing new representatives for county councils. As part of the Socialists' effort to loosen the grip of the central government, the presidents of these councils will take over many of the powers that were previously held by Paris-appointed prefects.

Above all, though, the voting represented an important national test in preparation for next year's parliamentary vote, which will determine the future of the Socialist government. President Franois Mitterrand was said to be waiting for the results before determining his electoral strategy for the next year.

In particular, the President must decide how to proceed with his promise to introduce proportional representation.

Mr. Mitterrand says that making a party's number of deputies dependent on its proportion of the national vote will make parliament better reflect the country's opinions. But such a move will also give him more room for political maneuver, increasing his chances of finding splinter parties ready to join a coalition led by his Socialists.

The opposition is crying foul. Neo-Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac said this week that changing the voting rules would be ``immoral.'' He gave the credit for France's quarter-century of stable government to the winner-take-all system introduced by Charles de Gaulle in 1959. The need to forge electoral alliances between parties has resulted in strong parliamentary majorities.

In contrast, Mr. Chirac pointed out that proportional representation remains associated with political instability here. During the Third and Fourth Republics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tactical alliances based on proportionally represented parties produced constantly changing coalition governments.

For this reason, Mitterrand seems likely to introduce only a limited amount of proportional representation, using it, for instance, to elect only one-quarter to one-third of the National Assembly's 491 deputies. Elys'ee aides admit that any more change would produce too much popular protest.

Mr. Le Pen's anti-immigrant and hyper-nationalist rhetoric has moved to the center of the political debate. In last June's European Parliament elections, he won nearly 11 percent of the vote, and in this week's elections, he proved he was more than a passing phenomenon by picking up at least 8 percent of the vote.

The strong results threaten conservative unity. With evident pain, the conservatives ask, should we make alliances with the National Front?

No clear answer has emerged. After spending much of the local election campaign hinting at such an alliance, the conservatives faced such strong contention within their ranks that they ruled out all ties with Le Pen. But in preparation for Sunday's second round, the opposition once again is talking about supporting National Front candidates in districts where they ran well.

Meanwhile, the Socialists grin. Now free of the faltering Communists, Elys'ee advisers pin their hopes for staying in power next year on their ability to lure some nominally conservative politicians, who are unable to stomach Le Pen, into a center-left coalition. To help forge this coalition, the Socialists have added rhetorical moderation to their moderate economic policies.

The formula seems to have helped. Opinion polls show Mitterrand's low public approval ratings are beginning to improve. And Prime Minister Laurent Fabius has proven very popular in the polls.

Still, the local elections showed that the Socialists have a long way to go before these improved poll ratings will translate into votes. Even without help from the National Front, the results would have given the mainstream conservatives an outright majority in the National Assembly. No wonder conservative leaders beamed with confidence after the local polls. -- 30 -- {et

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