`Prudent' Conservatives Set to Take Reins in France

Right prepares for difficult two years - and a race for president in 1995

FRANCE'S conservative and center-right parties may have won an unprecedented 80 percent of parliamentary seats in Sunday's elections, but more telling of the state of politics and the public mood in France than the victory itself is the measured, almost downbeat, tone set by the new French leadership.

France's humbled leaders sense that the public holds politics and its problem-solving abilities in very low esteem, and they are acting accordingly.

When the "rose wave" of Francois Mitterrand's Socialists swept over the country in 1981, the French danced and kissed in the streets until dawn, and the air hung ripe with promises of a transformed society. Twelve years later, a group of conservatives proposed a celebratory march up the Champs-Elysees, but was thwarted by party leaders who had in mind polls showing that French voters were not so much embracing the right as punishing the party that had promised them so much.

"People will have noticed that despite the amplitude of our victory we have been prudent," says Nicolas Sarkozy, a leader in the Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) of Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac. "We have the experience of a Socialist Party that promised the French people so much, like the creation of a million new jobs. We are seeing what that reaps."

France's new right-wing leadership is so eager to express moderation and humility as it assumes power that last week's spate of chest-thumping demands for Mr. Mitterrand's resignation has all but ceased. Those calls followed the first round of voting March 21, which promised an antagonistic relationship between a left-wing president - who does not face election until 1995 - and a right-wing government.

Although it was primarily RPR leaders, including Mr. Chirac, who fired the guns against Mitterrand last week, Sunday's victory and anticipation that Mitterrand will name RPR leader Edouard Balladur as prime minister this week prompted the new tone.

The RPR and center-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) of former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing together took 470 of the National Assembly's 577 seats, giving them the largest majority in modern French history. The Socialists lost 200 seats, falling to 75, and the Communists remained almost stable at 25 seats. The far-right National Front lost the one seat it held in the previous assembly. Lack of enthusiasm

While France's lack of ardent enthusiasm in the face of such an unambiguous victory may seem curious, it has a number of meanings beyond a simple lack of faith in politics.

First, it reveals a France that is no longer shaken by the idea of alternating powers, and is thus a sign of the country's maturity. One need only recall the jitters that the Socialists' arrival to power in 1981 (in tandem with the Communists) caused in some domestic and international quarters to realize how much France, and the world, has changed.

Sunday's elections also reflect the wearing effect of long-held power that has stricken a broad swatch of Western countries.

RPR and UDF leaders are aware they are not immune, especially since their leadership is not new or perceived as "fresh." Chirac has already been prime minister, while Mr. Giscard d'Estaing was elected president in 1974 and lost to Mitterrand in 1981.

But the right's tone is also a clear sign that the campaign for the next presidential election - only two short years away - has already begun. If a bellicose right decided to silence its attacks on Mitterrand, it is in part because the right realizes the next two years will be difficult. If Mitterrand is determined to stay, then he might as well be used, to share responsibility, reasons the right. Trying to win centrist voters

In addition, the election's legislative landslide masks the fact that the traditional right still assembles less than 50 percent of the vote. If the right wants to draw the center votes needed to win the presidency, it will have to appear less strident and less right-wing.

In this sense, the defeat of former Socialist prime minister Michel Rocard in his suburban Parisian district is significant. Considered the Socialists' virtual presidential candidate for 1995, Mr. Rocard has pleaded for a re-anchoring of the Socialist Party as the core of a new center-left political movement.

France's Socialists may be down, but they are far from out. Exit polls showed that the same French who were giving the right a historic majority indicated only a mild preference for right-wing presidential candidates over Rocard - and in one case even preferred Socialist Jacques Delors, currently president of the European Community executive commission.

"Even at the moment of the left's collapse," notes political analyst Alain Duhamel, "it is above all the country's economic situation that voters have rejected."

Realizing this, revelers at RPR headquarters Sunday night remained sanguine. "We have to keep in mind," said one young Gaullist voter, "that the real battle is in two years at the presidential election."

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