France plunged Sunday into political confusion. Legislative elections left Socialists and conservatives running in a dead heat. According to final exit polls, President Fran,cois Mitterrand's Socialist Party won between 265 and 285 deputies. The mainstream conservative coalition also took between 265 and 285 deputies.
With the communists capturing 25 deputies and the extreme right National Front garnering one or two deputies, no single party will obtain a clear majority in the 577-seat National Assembly.
The uncertain results send a warning to Mr. Mitterrand. A month ago, he soared to reelection - only to find it impossible to translate this smashing personal success into a legislative majority. Frenchmen endorsed the President's reassuring presence, his steady hand at the helm during the last two years of ``cohabitation'' when he ruled with conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac.
Despite the stronger-than-expected right-wing showing, Socialist officials rule out a return to power by Mr. Chirac or another hard-line conservative. Nor, they say, will the election result in a repeat of the 1981 Socialist-communist coalition.
Mitterrand is expected to try to rule with the support of a swing group of centrist deputies.
``People voted for Mitterrand, not for the Socialists,'' explained one Socialist official in private. ``In many voting districts, Socialist candidates ran as much as 10 points behind the President.''
During the legislative election campaign, the President assured that he would not repeat his ``socialist'' experiment of 1981. There will be no massive nation alizations of industry, no notorious new corporate taxes, and no bold attempts at shortening the work week.
The moderate Mitterrand promised this time to ``choose a prime minister from the new majority.''
He could appoint a centrist leader such as Simone Veil or Pierre M'ehaignerie as prime minister. Or he could stick with his present choice, the moderate ``social democratic'' Michel Rocard. Many here compare Mr. Rocard to United States Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis. The two men are small in stature, dull public speakers, intellectual, and technocratic. Their greatest asset: a can-do image of competence.
``Rocard and Dukakis both believe in the same thing: a free market with a human face,'' says Jean-Pierre Jouyet, a top-ranking Ministry of Industry official. ``They don't want `socialism.' They want to work with industry.''
Business has a new-found confidence in this pale-pink socialism. The stock market now is rising. After the Socialist victory in 1981, share values fell so fast that trading had to be suspended.
``We can live with the Socialists as well as with the conservatives,'' says Laurent Ciceron of the French Employers' Association. ``All the major parties are pro-business and pro-European.''
The new government's No. 1 priority, officials say, will be to prepare France for a unified, open Common Market in 1992. This means ending the old French preferences for protectionism and state intervention. It also means avoiding the traditional French habit of a post-election devaluation of the franc.
The problem now is to make sure that France can prepare for European integration without breaking its fragile national consensus.
In the first round of the legislative elections June 5, more than one-fifth of the electorate swung to the extremes, casting ballots either for the Communists or the National Front.
These voters are France's frustrated, the unemployed, the poor farmers, and all who fear more factory closings and more foreign competition from the new Europe.
``We must reconcile economic modernization with social cohesion,'' says Mr. Jouyet of the Industry Ministry. ``It will be a difficult balancing act.''
A bipartisan approach to most major issues is seen as the best solution. Before his re-election, Mitterrand declared that he wanted to do away with the left-versus-right political schism that has divided France since 1789. His hope was to establish a coalition which would comprise Socialists, centrists, and moderate conservatives.
When the most important, the center-right politicians refused to join him, however, Mitterrand called new parliamentary elections to win an outright socialist majority. In the ensuing campaign, the conservatives have been split over the emotional issue of how to handle the extreme right National Front.
Marseille conservative leader Jean-Claude Gaudin struck a deal with Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to withdraw some center-right candidates in return for withdrawals of some National Front candidates. Moderates Raymond Barre and Simone Veil exploded in anger, with Mrs. Veil saying she was ``more than troubled'' by the pact with the far right.
``There's no more difference on the issues between the socialists and the conservatives than between your Republicans and Democrats,'' says Jacques Audiliert, a Socialist official.
``But France still isn't America. The old right-left split won't go away so easily.''