FOR the past seven years on Armistice Day, French President Francois Mitterrand has ordered a wreath placed on the grave of Marshal Philippe Petain, alternatively remembered by the French as a hero of World War I or as the villain who led France into collaboration with the Nazis during World War II.
If it was not until this year that the gesture caused a fractious debate in France, it is more a reflection of the French leader's bitter estrangement from his own Socialist Party than of a sudden surge of qualms about Petain.
What is now called the "wreath affair" drew some of its sharpest critics from the top leadership of the Socialist Party. Party First Secretary Laurent Fabius said he hoped the gesture would "not be repeated," while the Socialist president of the National Assembly, Henri Emmanuelli, said simply, "I don't understand it."
The increasingly evident falling-out between Mitterrand and his party is the result of a realization here that the Socialists are destined for a severe defeat in national legislative elections set for next March.
"The Socialists hold an unpopular Mitterrand responsible for dragging them down to their ruin," says Colette Ysmal, a political scientist at the Center for French Political Life Studies, "while Mitterrand faults the party for leaving him the unpleasant likelihood of a new cohabitation."
"Cohabitation" is the word used here to describe the situation that first occurred in 1986, when the conservative opposition's victory in legislative elections forced Mitterrand to name his rival, Gaullist Jacques Chirac, as prime minister.
A certain distancing between the president and his party began after Mitterrand's reelection in 1988, when party leaders realized he would not be around forever.
But it is only over the last few months that signs of a rupture have multiplied. First, the Socialists refused to go along with several key pieces of Mitterrand legislation, including an electoral reform in favor of a proportional system, and a party financing law that would have forbidden contributions from business.
For his part, Mitterrand holds the Socialists responsible for what he considered a particularly inept campaign in favor of September's referendum for the European Community's Maastricht Treaty. By winning with a slim margin, the referendum came within a hair of wrecking what Mitterrand observers say the president hopes will be his place in history as one of the crucial builders of a new Europe.
The most recent sign of Mitterrand's distance from his party came last week when he called for a parliamentary High Court inquiry into the role of former Socialist ministers in scandal over the distribution of blood contaminated with the AIDS virus. The targets of the inquiry are likely to include Mr. Fabius, heretofore considered Mitterrand's prot.
The French president suffered another reversal last weekend when France's two ecology parties agreed on an election accord designed to take them to the National Assembly. Following national local elections last spring that were disastrous for the Socialists, Mitterrand signaled that the party needed to forge alliances with new political movements if a similar defeat were to be avoided next March.
Unfortunately for Mitterrand, the ecologists' agreement is a sign that the "progressive" forces Mitterrand had hoped to rally know a sinking ship when they see it.