WITH the popular Jacques Delors out of the race for the French presidency, the Socialists have lost their ``supreme savior.''
His party, which dropped to 14 percent of the French vote in the June elections for the European Parliament, is now in the market for a new candidate. But no leftist politician comes close to the 62 percent approval rating of the veteran European Commission president, known as Mr. Europe.
His withdrawal now appears to ensure a win for the rightist Rally for the Republic party (RPR), which would end 14 years of Socialist control of the presidency under Francois Mitterrand, who is retiring.
The right had divided in August when Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac entered the race against fellow RPR leader Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. But with Mr. Delors out of the race, Mr. Chirac can focus on battling the prime minister without competition from the left.
The pullout of ``Mr. Europe'' may, however, ultimately preserve his most cherished ideal, European unity, from attack on the right.
During his 10 years as president of the European Commission, Delors incarnated the ideal of European unity and close Franco-German ties. The Frenchman's close association with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had made him Germany's candidate.
In a hard-fought national campaign, French Euroskeptics could have made this point a hot-button election issue, insisting that closer European unity will sacrifice French interests to German economic power. Without Delors as candidate, discussion on integration may be less polarized.
But EU critics immediately interpreted his withdrawal as a signal that European unity has lost support altogether.
``Mr. Delors's analysis supports that of the National Front: In France there is no longer a majority for the European and nationalist ideas that he incarnates,'' said Bruno Megret, director of the presidential campaign of National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Some analysts counter that a clear debate on Europe is necessary as France assumes the EU presidency next month. ``If Delors had been a candidate, the elections would have been about Europe,'' says Philippe Moreau Defarges of the French Institute of International Relations. ``The absence of a clear debate on Europe unity creates real difficulties in the year France is to take over leadership of the European Union. In the long run, that's bad for Europe.''
In announcing his decision not to run, Delors dismissed suggestions that he was effectively sinking chances for the French left in May 1995 presidential elections.
``Ever since 1969, the French left has had a candidate make it through to the second round of presidential elections,'' he said. ``If the Socialists and the Radicals agree on a candidate [this year], he will win a place in Round 2.''
But agreement on such a wonder-candidate seems remote. ``I didn't want to lie to the French people,'' Mr. Delors said in a televised statement. ``Had I been elected, I wouldn't have had a majority to govern.'' He added, quoting a line from the Socialist anthem: ``There are no supreme saviors.''
But Socialist Party spokesman Jean Glavany did not hide his disappointment. ``We totally respect his personal reason [age]; but cannot accept his political rationale. All presidents of the Republic face the same issue: how to transform a personal majority into a governing majority,'' he said yesterday.
The party will meet in special session to designate a new candidate by mid-January, he added.
Public opinion is nudging a new face up through the ranks on the left. A poll this month published in Figaro Magazine listed Delors's daughter, Martine Aubry, as the No. 3 personality on the left that the public most wanted to see play an important role in the months and years to come, behind Delors and former Culture Minister Jack Lang.
Her father's decision to step aside leaves the way clear for a presidential bid of her own - if not next year, then seven or 14 hence. Her comments at last month's Socialist Congress struck home with a party that has seen 10 Socialist ministers or former ministers caught up in corruption allegations.
``Politics is always to serve and never to be suspected of serving oneself.... Ethics in politics is simply to do what one says,'' she said to an ovation.
Socialist activist Yves Baunay watched Delors's television interview. ``I had doubts about the Delors candidacy,'' he said. ``I thought he had organized everything, including the suspense. But this just leaves a void.''