THE French have often thought of themselves as in crisis - so much that everyone else has known it to be untrue. But in 1990 this perpetual fear for the health of the French culture and nation is beginning to sound convincing. Symptoms of a deep malaise are piercing an otherwise tranquil surface. Indeed, in a late June interview Le Monde asked President Fran,cois Mitterand if a ``crisis of national identity'' is at hand.
Behind this inquiry are public-opinion data that portray a nation mired in self-doubt, mistrust, and disenchantment. Particularly evident is the public's alienation from mainstream politics and a precipitous decline in the popularity of well known politicians.
After 10 years in office, President Mitterand was given a satisfactory performance rating by only 39 percent in a poll this spring. Contributing to Mitterand's falling star, no doubt, was Franz-Olivier Giesbert's new biography, ``Le Pr'esident,'' which spares no criticism. Also, when Mitterand's Socialist Party (PS) held its spring congress at Rennes, squabbling made a mockery of the party's leadership.
Other important leaders fared no better. Former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing (who leads the center-right Union for French Democracy, or UDF) and Jacques Chirac (Mayor of Paris and head of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic, or RPR) also lost points in virtually every measure of public support. Prime Minister Michel Rocard is the only person serving in the government or a mainstream party who receives more ``yes'' than ``no'' responses when the public is asked, ``Would this person make a good president?''
Why has this happened? That which matters to the French people is not grasped by the principal parties - the Socialists or the Gaullists. With the populace far better off on average than ever before, and with the cold car ending, the major parties seem unable to find the pulse of France.
Jean-Marie Le Pen has been the beneficiary of public disgust with ``old politics.'' It is his extreme right-wing dogma - ``France aux Fran,cais'' (France for the French) - that has set the agenda for the country's politics in 1990, while Gaullists and Socialists have tried to cope.
Le Pen's support is drawn heavily from strata that have not shared in France's 1980s prosperity. The gap in consumption between France's wealthiest and poorest households has widened in the last 10 years, while employment remains at 9.5 percent.
The Socialist Party has declared that mitigating inequalities will have high priority for the remainder of Mitterand's term. The president's initiative to raise the minimum wage, despite possible inflationary pressure, is evidence of how dangerous to PS fortunes this issue has become.
But the National Front (FN) of Le Pen is the party that everyone is watching, with both moderate left and right losing some support. The Front has been around as a fringe party for years, but always with a national vote less than 5 percent of the total. This fringe status can no longer be assumed. In national polls this year, the FN has received a mean of 15-17 percent support, while in recent local elections its candidates have drawn as much as 37 percent of the votes.
Immigration is the top concern of Frenchmen, according to a national survey last spring. More than anything else, this is Le Pen's calling card.
Le Pen's message is nationalistic, racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic. He cites some statistical truths - that, for example, there are 5 million illegal immigrants in France. His message also emphasizes the disproportionately high crime rate among such immigrant groups. But, aside from these few data, Le Pen often misleads, as by saying immigrants steal jobs from Frenchmen. He ignores that most jobs being filled by African or Muslim immigrants are those that the French do not seem to want to take. Le Pen also purposefully ignores France's prior history of successful immigration.
Immigration has taken on such political importance not only because of Le Pen. The European Community has focused attention on the threat of illegal immigration as a facet of larger North-South issues. Arabs born in France - the Beur population - are themselves drawing attention to their poor living conditions, and using Le Pen's challenge as a way to articulate their needs.
The conservatives have been thrown into disarray by these issues and Le Pen. Splits within the Gaullists, led by Chirac, surfaced in late 1989 and early 1990. In late June, Giscard and Chirac agreed that their center-right and neo-Gaullist parties would merge to form the Union for France (UPF). This may also have been a move calculated to enhance conservatives' prospects in the 1995 presidential election. Since the old Gaullists and UDF did not see eye to eye on social and European issues, however, selecting one presidential candidate is unlikely to avoid acrimony. Most clearly, this step exhibits the panic into which conservatives have been thrown by issues that cost them votes to the right.
Prime Minister Rocard has resorted to public appeals for a nonpartisan effort to resolve the immigration problem. His May 23 statements were a direct response to a growing recognition that racism may endanger French stability. At the same time, Rocard and the Socialists have tried to identify Le Pen as the person culpable for the climate of intolerance symbolized by the Carpentras incident in early May, where a Jewish cemetery was desecrated.
At the heart of this unease among parties and populace is the strong sense that France's place in Europe is less assured than it has been for the past several decades. Simultaneously, France's newest immigrants are disliked by white, native-born French who perceive themselves as unfairly denied the spoils of the country's prosperity. With such undercurrents shaking its political equilibrium, France's next few years could be volatile.