THE leading potential candidate for the French presidency hails from a party that most voters don't want to see anywhere near power - a party, moreover, that isn't quite sure it wants him.
Jacques Delors made strong enemies within the Socialist Party at the beginning of Francois Mitterrand's presidency in 1981 by opposing deficit spending on social programs. While 10 years as president of the European Commission enhanced his luster, many party activists believe he still stands at the edge of the Socialist tradition.
Fifty-one percent of voters favor Mr. Delors as president, but only 40 percent describe themselves as sharing the values of his party.
Many French Socialists welcome a new face and a new message in advance of the spring 1995 elections. The party won power in 1981 by sounding battle cries reminiscent of the bitter conflicts of the first decades of the French industrial revolution.
But once in power, party leaders dropped radical social programs in response to market pressures.
Resounding electoral defeat for the Socialists last year surprised no one. Now, Delors supporters speak of a new opening to the center, appealing to traditional conservative voters with a program focusing on Europe and employment.
Long silent on his political ambitions, the nation's leading noncandidate is speaking out. Publication last month of a book of interviews with writer Dominique Wolton, as well as a series of high-profile media events, have begun to test whether one can be out of French political life for a decade and return to claim its highest office. Delors says he has made up his mind and will announce whether he will run in next May's elections by Christmas.
A recent poll shows him leading the former front-runner, right-of-center Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, by 11 points. Delors has kept cool, however, and insists that if he becomes a candidate, it will be ``as a duty.''
``My personal inclination has always been to transform society through the economy and social activism rather than through politics,'' he tells Ms. Wolton.
Nonetheless, he is currently the most popular figure in French public life. A poll last weekend showed him to be most often named as the political personality whom the public hopes will play an important role in coming years.
At a party congress in the northern mining city of Lievin last month, Secretary Henri Emmanuelli called on Delors to accept a draft: ``Jacques, in the name of a majority of Socialists, this is your duty.''
It's been a tough 21 months for party activists. The March 1993 elections, in which conservatives won four-fifths of the vote, handed Socialists the most crushing defeat in the history of French democracy. Socialist activists are complaining of no money for journals and newsletters, and they quietly observe that some ousted former legislators are still looking for work.
But French voters aren't as worried about the jobs of Socialist politicians as their own. Unemployment has risen to a record 12.7 percent of the work force. Delors is convinced he can link job concerns to his project for firmer European integration.
``Only a more substantial coordination of national economic policies will allow us to limit the impact of the 1990 to '92 recession, most notably on employment,'' he tells author Wolton.
Delors describes himself as ``acting in the world as it is.'' As finance minister from 1981 to '84, he was the first to call for ``a pause'' in nationalization and deficit spending ``to do what was necessary to see that the experience of the Left in power didn't quickly end in a financial crisis.'' Some of party's hard core never forgave him.
``We must fight against conservatism, including conservatism on the left,'' said one activist to scattered applause at the party congress last month.
Many Socialists have yet to come to terms with why their party lost so disastrously in 1993. ``The big debate will come after the presidentials,'' says Karim Rhaouti of the Movement of Young Socialists, echoing the comments of many other delegates. ``For now, we need to unify around Delors.''
``Delors is the only one who can win in the political landscape we find ourselves in now,'' said Christian Pierret, who is organizing a group of heads of industry to support the Delors candidacy.
Since taking up the presidency of the European Commission in 1984, Delors has come to personify the ideal of a united Europe. In 40 years of political life, he says what he is most proud of is his ``activity for Europe.''
In a recent television interview, Delors appeared flanked by the European blue and yellow flag, a miner's lamp, and a poster of Citizen Kane.
If he enters the presidential campaign, he may need all three.