Pragmatism is Front-runner. FRANCE'S MUNICIPAL VOTE

EVER since its revolution gave the world the labels ``right'' and ``left,'' France has lived with a reputation for political polarization. Political discussions here often turned into shouting matches. But as the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille approaches, the usual intensity of French elections has faded. In contrast to other European democracies such as West Germany and Austria which have experienced a rise of far-right extremism, politics here have become remarkable for their spirit of calm, and compromise. The latest sign of this soothing trend has come in this week's municipal voting which ends on Sunday.

The most significant result of last Sunday's first-round voting was the powerful pull of the status quo. From last June's legislative elections, the ``right-left'' split stayed steady at about 42 percent for the left and 47 percent for the right. While the ruling minority Socialists look likely to pick up a few more municipalities in the second round runoff, the mainstream conservatives will hold on to most of their mayorships.

``The key word is stability,'' says political scientist Ren'e Remond. ``Unlike in the last municipal elections in 1983, there's no noticeable swing to the opposition right.''

Before the vote, many Socialists feared a setback. Parties in power traditionally suffer reverses at midterm elections, and a recent series of financial scandals among President Fran,cois Mitterrand's friends, along with a wave of public service strikes were expected to anger the electorate.

Instead, the Socialists gained 2 percentage points on their 1983 performance, leading a jubilant Prime Minister Michel Rocard to conclude, ``The main choices of the President and his government and the parliamentary majority have been confirmed.''

Analysts agreed. Despite the strikes, the French economy is expanding vigorously, and Mr. Rocard's pragmatic governing style seems to have struck a responsive chord among the increasingly prosperous, nonideological majority of French.

As evidence, the analysts cite the success of all four of the non-socialist ``centrist'' ministers in Rocard's government who ran well.

The analysts also point to the Communist Party's mounting problems. Normally strong in municipal voting, the communists fell to only 5 percent of the vote. Socialist candidates took away Saint Dizier, Le Petit Quevilly, and Les Muraux, three communist bastions in the industrial ``red belt'' around Paris.

``The municipal battles of 1989 confirm, in all their aspects, the recentering of our political life,'' writes Paul Guilbert of Le Figaro. Adds Professor R'emond: ``Rocard no longer speaks of a victory of the left, but a victory of the presidential majority.''

The French results buck a trend in Western Europe toward far-right extremism. Politicians voicing xenophobic, anti-immigrant themes have done well in recent European elections - most notably in West Germany and Austria.

France's extreme right National Front, however, lost ground. After a spectacular showing in last April's presidential voting, when its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen won almost 15 percent of the vote, the National Front this time took only about 5 percent nationwide. Although the front did win more than 10 percent in several cities, it received less than half the number of votes than it did last year in its bastion, Marseille.

THERE is no wave of nationalism,'' observes Fran,cois Goguel, president of the National Foundation of Political Science. ``The National Front has become a local speciality, with few resources, strong only when others are weak.''

In the past, mainstream conservatives flirted with Mr. Le Pen, even teaming up with him in several towns. The tactic alienated many moderate voters - as well as many younger conservatives. One leading Gaullist ex-minister, Michel Noir, summed up the general revulsion, saying ``Better to lose an election than to lose your soul.''

The conservatives listened. They now have shifted strategy and moved to ostracize the National Front. After Le Pen called for an alliance in the second round, Alain Juppe, secretary general of the Gaullist Rally for the Republic Party, refused.

Some French voters still looked for a way to protest against the established parties. They found it, to almost everyone's surprise, with the Greens. The Ecologist Party took 13 percent in Strasbourg and more than 15 percent in several towns in Britanny and held the balance of power in many cities where neither the left nor right held a decisive majority after the first round.

Until now, the environment has never proved an important issue in France, and the ecologists never won more than 2 percent of the vote. A huge nuclear power program has gone ahead without protest. French automakers have resisted reducing emissions.

``A real ecologist current exists, tied to the problems of the environment, but this is not a sufficient explanation,'' argues J'er^ome Jaffr'e, director of the Sofres polling agency. ``The ecologists benefited from the will of the French to escape the left-right split.''

For politicians of all stripes, however, the one real worrying sign from the municipal election came from the high level of abstentions. Although 70 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, this was the smallest percentage to vote in municipal elections since World War II.

``If there is one warning from this election, it is a warning for the entire political class,'' says political scientist Goguel. ``The percentage of abstentions, the unexpected success of the ecologists mean that the establishment doesn't understand many voters' real concerns.''

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