France's trend toward middle-of-road politics is set back by unrest

The students are back in school, the trains are running, the electricity is working - and yet France is not back to normal. Although the country's ugly wave of social unrest ended last week, politicians, sociologists, economists, and others interviewed by the Monitor agree that the fallout from the past month of student demonstrations and labor strikes may be felt for years.

A trend toward pragmatic, consensus-minded, middle-of-the-road tolerance has reverted to the left-right polarization of the past. And a recovering economy has taken a serious jolt.

The damage might eventually torpedo the delicate power-sharing alliance between Socialist President Francois Mitterrand and conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac.

These developments could be bad news for the United States, which regards France as a key ally. Analysts here are asking whether a weakened France will be able to continue its active foreign policy supporting deployment of American nuclear missiles in Europe, pushing for a continued Western presence in the Mideast, and acting as gendarme for Western interests in parts of Africa.

``What we've gone through looks like another 1968,'' observes Michel Crozier, a sociologist. In May of that year, Mr. Crozier notes, a student and labor revolt fizzled out after a few weeks, only to have its wider influence linger on, dealing a serious blow to traditional patterns in politics, working life, education, even in family life.

Ironically, the recent unrest had dramatically different goals. In 1968, Crozier says, millions of Frenchmen vented their frustrations with the authoritarian pattern of the hierarchy, bureaucracy, and entrenched privileges that dominated public and working life. This time, he says, students and strikers were calling for restoration of state-insured privileges.

``France always has been a centralized state,'' Crozier says, ``and many Frenchmen still want the state to protect them.''

Yet this sentiment represents a backlash. Best-selling author Francois de Closets says that a consensus had emerged in recent years that France must wean itself away from a dependence on a paternal government in order to make its economy competitive in world markets. After initially nationalizing much of French industry, Mr. de Closets says, the Socialist government, between 1983 and 1986, put through an economic austerity program that cut workers' purchasing power. At the same time, they began promoting entrepreneurship and private enterprise.

``The Socialists began to teach us that profits were not a dirty word,'' says de Closets. ``By pushing too hard, too fast, the conservatives have blocked everything up again.''

After taking office in March 1986, conservative Mr. Chirac imposed an ambitious Reagan-style revolution. Advisers explain that Chirac felt under pressure to make his mark quickly in preparation for his 1988 presidential campaign. Neglecting Parliament to rule by decree, he enacted a flurry of measures designed to give entrepreneurs greater incentives. But many saw the measures as fostering an unbalanced, unjust sharing of austerity's burdens. Even as the government cut back unemployment benefits, for example, it abolished a tax on large estates.

Strategic errors followed. When the students revolted in December against a reform to stiffen universities' admission requirements, Chirac capitulated and withdrew the reform. Concessions to farmers just two weeks later, nearly doubling agricultural price subsidies, weakened his credibility as a leader committed to tighter government spending. The setting was ripe for train workers and other public-service employees to press their demands.

Chirac managed to hold the line on wage increases, but his economic problems are not over. J. Paul Horne, chief international economist for Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co., says France faces new inflationary pressures as a result of last week's reevaluation of the German mark - in effect, a devaluation of the franc.

Contract negotiations for teachers, hospital workers, and other public employees begin this week. And new wage demands and strike threats are likely. Economists are lowering their predictions for economic growth in 1987 from almost 3 percent to less than 2 percent.

Along with this deteriorating economic outlook comes a bleak political prognosis. With the institution of ``cohabitation'' - the unique power-sharing arrangement between the conservative prime minister and Socialist President - political analysts such as Philippe Moreau Defarges at the Institute of Foreign Relations had hoped to see long years of debilitating right-left ideological struggles replaced by an era of compromise.

Now Mr. Moreau Defarges predicts that France may have to revert to a more authoritarian style of presidential leadership to check any turn toward the extremes.

The faltering Communist Party jumped into the breach to exploit the recent labor protests. So did the extreme rightist National Front Party and right-wingers in Chirac's own party, the Rally for the Republic, who led what they called ``the silent majority'' into the streets, venting anger over electricity cuts and the stoppage of mass transit.

These problems could hurt France abroad. While the country's consensus remains intact on foreign policy, namely that France should remain an independent nuclear power while supporting the Western alliance, analysts question whether its government will be stable enough to act forcefully. A test could come any day in Chad, or it could come with a renewed spate of Mideast-inspired violence at home.

``Our authority has suffered,'' one Chirac aide admits, ``and we will have to be more careful in 1987.'' He said future policies would be more conciliatory.

Mr. Mitterrand, the other key political player, also appears conciliatory. During the crisis, he avoided exploiting Chirac's woes, commenting, ``There is a labor crisis, but no political crisis.'' An aide insisted that the President would continue to try to make ``cohabitation'' work.

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