LUCETTE BORNET and Josiane Demeyer do not fancy themselves keen political analysts, but their doorstep banter on a recent morning offered clues to the deep transformation sweeping France's domestic political scene.
Part of the sparse crowd that greeted Prime Minister Edith Cresson on a campaign stop in this northern city, the two women say people in their sagging public housing complex are "disappointed," and ready in larger numbers than ever before to consider an alternative after more than 10 years of Socialist rule.
"There are going to be some big surprises," says Mrs. Demeyer, of France's March 22 regional elections. "People are fed up." That could "lead people to go with the ecologists, or maybe they just won't vote," adds Mrs. Bornet. And if, unlike their neighbors, the two women came out to see Mrs. Cresson, it was to let her know that they, too, oppose the rise of France's extreme-right National Front - an issue the prime minister has placed at the center of her campaign.
"Le Pen," the two women nod, referring to the National Front's controversial and ubiquitous leader. "That's really what this election has come down to."
Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front (FN) are indeed dominating the French political agenda. After gradually rising in popularity over the last decade, on the eve of elections the anti-immigration, France-for-the-French leader may bring the FN 15 percent of the national vote. That would confirm the extreme right as a force to be reckoned with in France and as a spoiler of the country's traditional left-right political configuration.
In city after city, Mr. Le Pen has been greeted by anti-FN demonstrations, some of them violent. With protesters chanting "No freedom for the enemies of freedom," and with some cities denying the legal party access to public facilities for its meetings, Le Pen has regaled his large, enthusiastic audiences with diatribes that turn accusations of fascism and antidemocratic tendencies back on his accusers.
"They can use whatever tactics they want, they can be as undemocratic as they want to shut us up," Le Pen said here last week. "But we reply: It's too late."
Yet even as the debate over Le Pen dominates the political arena, it is obscuring a broader transformation shaking the French domestic political scene. With the traditional political parties, including the Socialists, the Communists, and the two mainstream conservative parties all facing voter discredit, many observers anticipate a significant redrawing of the French political map following the regional election.
"After these elections, France is going to be playing on a whole new political stage," says Pascal Dubois, who heads a list of candidates in the Lille region for Generation cologie, a young movement espousing pragmatic environmentalism and a break with traditional politics.
Taken with the longer established Greens party, the two environmental parties are expected to garner as much as 15 percent of the vote. Added to the FN's share, that leaves less than 70 percent to France's "band of four" traditional major parties, and little hope for anyone to achieve a working majority.
Some observers even predict that President Francois Mitterrand, anticipating a period of unshakable weakness for the Socialist Party he founded, is preparing the foundations of a new center-left party, free of the discredited "socialist" moniker, that could become a new majority party in time to deny the traditional right wing a governing majority in next year's legislative elections.
"Mitterrand is busy plotting the demise of the Socialist Party, no doubt about it," says Ivan Renar, a Communist member of the French Senate and member of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais regional council. "His dream is a complete political recomposition."
Although the March 22 vote is for regional and local offices, the campaign is being fought over national issues. With unemployment nearing 10 percent, concerns mounting over European Community integration, and the Socialists blamed for the FN's rise, the elections have become a referendum on the government. And the Socialists are not faring well.
The Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, including Dunkirk, Calais, and Lille, is a case in point. Historically dominated by the proletariat that worked in mines, steel, and textiles, the region has long voted for the left.
"We are in the cradle of French socialism," says Alex Turk, a political science professor and conservative Gaullist regional councilor. "The Socialist international [the international socialist hymn] was composed not far away" in a Lille suburb.
But even here, the landscape is undergoing profound reshaping. With the traditional left expected to fall short of the majority to claim the region's presidency, the door will be open to new alliances involving the rising ecologists or other independents.
No one here is suggesting an alliance with the FN, although that possibility is a hotter topic in other regions where the extreme right is already stronger than the mainstream parties.
The need to hammer out untried alliances might result in unstable regional governments, some observers believe, and could portend equally uncertain results for legislative elections scheduled for 1993.
At a time when regional policies and programs are taking on new importance in France, as many as 18 of France's 22 regional governments could find themselves without a clear majority to govern, according to Mr. Turk.
Turk and others say the instability they anticipate is a result of the proportional representation system that governs the regional elections. Understandably, growing minority movements like the ecologists and the FN favor the proportional system as more democratic and ultimately more reflective of the electorate.
Opponents warn that paralysis awaits the national government if proportional representation is adopted for the national assembly, as Mr. Mitterrand and others are suggesting. Mr. Renar disagrees, saying "It simply means we'll have to find new, more imaginative ways of governing."