FRENCH voters on Sunday pounded the country's left wing to its lowest level in French contemporary history, in the process relegating Socialist President Francois Mitterrand to what one political analyst predicted will be "a discreet presidency."
Although the final results of the national parliamentary elections will not be known until the second round of voting on March 28, France's two dominant right-wing parties appeared after the first round to gain an unprecedented majority in the National Assembly.
Results showed the ruling Socialists with just under 20 percent, the Communist Party at 9 percent, and the two ecologist parties together with 7.6 percent - the last figure being the first round's big surprise, since polls had suggested they would double that score. On the right, the Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) took 20 percent, the Union for French Democracy (UDF) 19 percent, and the far-right National Front 12 percent.
The vote will force France into its second "cohabitation," with the Socialist Mr. Mitterrand naming a right-wing prime minister and living with a right-wing government and Parliament. The situation will differ tremendously from the cohabitation of 1986, however: The right then had only a four-vote legislative majority, and Mitterrand was still popular.
Now the president's public esteem is sagging badly, and the right will likely hold 80 percent to 85 percent of the Assembly. Nothing in the Constitution requires Mitterrand to step down before his term ends in 1995, but some right-wing leaders are suggesting he take personal account of the voters' sentiments.
"It's up to [Mitterrand] to judge if he is in step with the French public," says prominent RPR Sen. Charles Pasqua. "It's not for us to ask if we must live [through] another cohabitation, but the president."
Mitterrand has said he will appoint a prime minister from the party with the most Assembly seats. The RPR appears set to take that prize and speculation has narrowed Mitterrand's choices to either RPR president Jacques Chirac or former Economics Minister Edouard Balladur.
MR. Chirac, prime minister during the first cohabitation, has said he does not want the post - perhaps recognizing that a bruising two years before presidential elections in 1995 could endanger his presidential aspirations. That might also be why Mitterrand, known for crafty calculation, might choose to name him.
In the wake of Sunday's results, Socialist and other left-wing leaders were busy warning of the dangers of a "monolithic" Assembly - in the hopes of limiting the right-wing tidal wave in Sunday's second round - and acknowledging the vote as a warning to renovate the French left.
"What awaits us is an RPR state," said Socialist Environment Minister Segolene Royal, noting that the right already controls French regional and municipal government. "We must have a parliament that reflects the country's diversity," pleaded Culture Minister Jack Lang.
Former Socialist prime minister and presidential hopeful Michel Rocard said the vote revealed "the extent to which we must renew ourselves."
But Mr. Rocard, one of a number of Socialist "big guns" who face defeat in their districts in the March 28 runoff voting, is a symbol of how difficult that "renewal" will be.
"It's difficult to see what reservoir [of voters] the Socialist Party can hope to draw from," says Jme Jaffre, a political analyst with the Sofres polling group.
Rocard suggests the left's salvation lies in drawing back the 30 percent of the public that failed to vote.