French Left Looks For New Leader As Rocard Bows Out

LAST year, France's former Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard called for ``le big bang'' to rejuvenate the country's sputtering left and energize his candidacy for the French presidency. But with his dream of following Francois Mitterrand to the presidential palace in shambles after a poor Socialist showing in recent European elections, Mr. Rocard is now being called ``le big flop.''

Rocard, who served as prime minister for three years from 1988 to May 1991, resigned Sunday as first secretary of the Socialist Party after he failed to win a vote of confidence from the party's national council. Voted in May 1992 the party's ``natural candidate'' for the spring 1995 presidential election, Rocard now appears almost certain to step aside to allow someone else to represent the Socialists - and the left in general - in the race.

The name of Jacques Delors, currently president of the European Union's executive Commission, was already being openly cited by top Socialist leaders in the run-up to Sunday's Socialist meeting. Another former prime minister, Laurent Fabius, said on Saturday that Mr. Delors was the ``best placed'' to carry the Socialist mantle in the presidential vote.

But the most pressing problem for French Socialists is the state of that mantle - more a shredded, and apparently to voters' eyes, outdated garment than a cover-all for the French left.

Rocard's problems were already surfacing before the June 12 European Parliament elections, but the results were devastating: The Rocard-led Socialists took only 14.5 percent of the French vote - the party's worst score since Mr. Mitterrand took over the party in 1974 - while various factions drained off support. The most spectacular of these was the list of candidates led by national parliamentarian and bankrupt businessman Bernard Tapie, which garnered more than 12 percent of the vote. A charismatic - some say populist - leader who shines on television, Mr. Tapie attracted left-leaning voters where Rocard did not.

As a child of Marseille's mean streets, self-made businessman, former minister of cities, and energetic opponent of France's extreme right, Tapie represents leftist activism and ``modern'' idealism for a growing slice of voters, while Rocard represents a tired and bureaucratic left.

Socialist leaders fault Rocard for failing to capitalize on the obvious weaknesses of the governing center-right - including its inability to reverse the country's unemployment, now standing at 12.3 percent. The Socialist's campaign standard-bearer spoke vaguely of the ``shame'' of unemployment, but Tapie won attention by proposing to outlaw youth unemployment - a particularly acute problem for France.

All is not lost for the French left, some analysts believe, especially if Delors can be persuaded to jump into the presidential race. Opinion polls have for years placed the former economics minister high on popularity lists. Current surveys show that he would lose to Prime Minister Edouard Balladur but defeat Paris Mayor and Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac.

The French right tends to make things easier for its opponents by splintering for a presidential race, and it looks on track to do the same next year. Both Mr. Balladur and Mr. Chirac, though from the same party, want the prize, as does former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Delors has indicated he is not interested in reentering French politics. But even if that was just coy campaigning, the man much of Europe calls ``Mr. Europe'' would face high hurdles - the most important being his strong association with the vision of a federal Europe when pro-nationalist groups are gaining ground.

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