French Say `No' To Traditional Political Parties

Ruling Socialists lose a third of their voters, as ecologists and the extreme right find roots. REGIONAL ELECTIONS

DEMOCRACY yes, politics as usual no, they say.

By voting in much larger numbers in regional and local elections Sunday than most experts had predicted, French voters summarily debunked theories that they are estranged from the democratic process.

What they are tired of, their votes say, is the conventional politics that the traditional parties of power, and especially the reigning Socialists of President Francois Mitterrand, are offering.

Results yesterday showed the traditional right-wing parties, the Gaullists and the Union for French Democracy, with 33 percent, several points below past scores. The Socialists fell to 18 percent, a loss of about one-third of their traditional support.

In contrast, the ecologists' support jumped to nearly 15 percent - almost evenly divided between the Greens and Gration Ecologie of Environment Minister Brice Lalonde. The extreme-right National Front (FN) of Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose anti-immigrant, anti-establishment, "France-first" philosophies dominated the campaign, garnered just under 14 percent.

Although the elections were for regional and local offices, most ears are now tuned to the Elysee presidential palace awaiting Mr. Mitterrand's response to an election where less than 1 voter in 5 supported the political party he built. Will he replace Prime Minister Edith Cresson? Call early legislative elections? Push for a proportional representation system to be adopted in national elections as a means of denying the right a clear governing majority?

"We must see the emergence of [new] political forces and we must accept it," said Mrs. Cresson, speaking on French television. Insisting she would retain her office, she nevertheless evoked "a very different situation from the past" where untested coalitions will be necessary.

Indeed the big surprise for many observers was that so many French felt that they had a message to deliver through the ballot box. Nearly 7 out of every 10 people went to the polls, whereas political analysts and poll takers had estimated that participation would drop to 50 percent or less.

"By expressing themselves in much higher numbers than expected, the French have shown that they hold deeply to the democratic process," says Dominique Voynet, a spokeswoman for the Greens.

Yet just 1 of every 2 voters chose a candidate from the traditional governing parties down from a ratio of 3 to 4 as recently as the late 1980s.

In some areas such as the greater Paris region, where 1 of 5 French live, the Socialists dropped behind the FN.

Although the FN did not attain the levels Mr. Le Pen had predicted, the party's success at the local level demonstrates it is now a rooted political force and not just a refuge for protest voters, as some French leaders had previously claimed.

Calling this "implantation" of the extreme right "unique in Europe," Olivier Duhamel, an expert with the SOFRES polling organization, says: "This is probably the major lesson the rest of Europe will take from these elections."

Although national legislative elections are not scheduled for another year, various studies show how thoroughly national politics would be altered if voters expressed similar preferences for the National Assembly.

If the current two-round, majority-rules system for electing the assembly were maintained, the traditional right would win a resounding majority, according to a SOFRES study. That would force Mitterrand to finish out his term ending in 1995 with a conservative prime minister and government, an experience he lived through from 1986-88 and has worked hard to avoid ever since.

But the study also showed that adoption of a proportional representation system, like that used in the election of regional councils, would deny the conservatives a majority. The Socialists would benefit only marginally, but the FN would become the third largest power in the assembly.

"This presents a very difficult situation for Mitterrand and the Socialists to decide," says Jme Jaffre another expert with SOFRES.

The proportional system would mean "the shattering of the [tradtional] political forces with an important participation for the extreme right," he says.

The traditional conservative parties said during the campaign that they would refuse any alliances with the FN to assemble a governing majority. An initial test of their sincerity will come Friday, when France's 22 newly elected regional councils elect their presidents.

That voting will show how difficult it is to create the new "untested coalitions" that Prime Minister Cresson realizes are necessary, as well as just how adamant the conservatives are about shunning the extreme right.

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