French politics heat up as election campaigns gather steam

It looks like a simple, clear-cut verdict. As the campaign for France's March parliamentary elections heats up, polls put the conservative opposition well ahead. President Franois Mitterrand enters the campaign fray himself today, by giving a major press conference, only his fourth since coming to power in 1981.

At home, Mr. Mitterrand's Socialist government is condemned for promising growth while producing austerity, and promising more jobs while producing more jobless. Abroad, its socialist image has sunk along with the Greenpeace vessel in New Zealand.

The French political landscape remains explosive. In trying to fill the power vacum left by the Socialists' decline, France faces a turning point, offering both great possibilities and great dangers.

The edges of the system are fraying. On the left, the Communist Party is retreating into its Stalinist shell. On the right, Jean-Marie Le Pen's racist extreme-right movement has gained power by turning the country's immigrants into scapegoats.

Mainstream politics, meanwhile, are becoming more pragmatic. By abandoning dogmatic socialism, Mitterrand has redrawn the the battlelines. Instead of the ideological warfare of past campaigns, drawing on apocalyptic renderings of class struggle, the main choice facing the electorate now seems almost like that in the United States between Republicans and Democrats.

``Nobody in France talks about socialism and state control anymore,'' says Alain Jupp'e, chief economic advisor to neo-Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac. ``The intellectual debate is about liberalism.''

When they talk about liberalism, Mr. Jupp'e, Mr. Chirac, and their Gaullists mean a French-version of Reaganism, that combination of free-market economics with a strong anti-Soviet foreign policy. Such statements must please the Reagan administration, which already has been pleasantly surpised by Mitterrand's strong pro-US policy.

Unfortunately for the US, most Frenchmen don't share that definition of liberalism. Chirac is apparently not the most popular politican in the country. Opinion polls award that honor to either moderate socialist Michel Rocard, who espouses a pale, pragmatic social democracy, or conservative former Prime Minister Raymond Barre, who calls himself a liberal but scorns Reaganomics. Neither man preaches pro-Americanism.

Mr. Barre made these points clear in a recent interview. ``The method used by Reagan -- massive tax cuts covered by government savings -- cannot be used in a country like France,'' he said. In foreign affairs, Barre said he would like France to play more of a mediating role between the East and West. ``The [Western] Alliance does not mean we must blindly follow America,'' he said.

An victory for the opposition in March would leave these policy questions unanswered.

Whatever the election result, Mitterrand says he will stay on as President until his term expires in 1988. This poses the problem of what the French call ``cohabitation.''

In domestic economic policy, the future also remains clouded. Chirac calls for massive privatization of the nationalized industries and banks. ``We can't do this overnight,'' Barre contends.

Similarly, Barre responds to Chirac's call for tax reforms by saying ``France's budget situation is such that I don't see how we can reduce taxes right away.''

Even greater strains will be felt in social policy. A few years ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen was dismissed as a fanatic, his anti-immigrant crusade scoring less than 1 percent in the polls.

Today, Mr. Le Pen and his cry of ``3 million unemployed with 3 million foreigners'' draws huge crowds to allies, puts him on the covers of the national news magazines -- and makes 10 percent of the electorate say they are ready to vote for him.

Will French Conservatives be forced to depend on Le Pen for their majority? Chirac, Barre, and others say they will not rule with the extreme-right ruler. The Socialists say they will not rule with Chirac or Barre.

So who will govern after next March's election? Even if the Conservatives win their predicted victory, there may be no clear-cut answer.

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