The French political map has been abruptly redrawn by an election that all the major parties would have liked to avoid. In last week's voting for members of the European Parliament, the French handed a major rebuke to their left-wing government without rallying to the mainstream opposition in the proportions hoped for by conservatives. The only real winner from the poll was the far right-wing National Front Party, which outdid all predictions by taking 11 percent of the vote.
In theory, the election was meant to be about the state of the European Community. In fact, it was concerned almost entirely with domestic issues, primarily the performance and popularity of President Francois Mitterrand's administration. The President's Socialists had always expected to do poorly, and their expectations were borne out by a 20 percent share of the vote.
That reflected the electorate's unhappiness with government policies, particularity its inflation-fighting economic austerity. The only comfort for Mitterrand is that a lot of left-wing voters who backed him when he won office in 1981 appear to have abstained rather than crossing to the opposition.
If the Socialists did poorly, the French Communist Party (PCF), which has four ministers in the government, performed disastrously. It ended up with just over 11 percent of the vote, continuing a steady decline from the period 10 to 15 years ago when it could draw more than 20 percent of the vote. (Reuters reports the PCF will consider replacing party leader Georges Marchais at an emergency meeting next week.) The party, now at a post-war electoral low, suffered from an attempt to play both sides of the street, keeping its ministers in government while criticizing the economic austerity policy.
Most galling for the Communists was the news that they had finished only just ahead of the National Front. Communist and Socialist spokesmen showed their feelings by walking out of a television panel discussing the results when Jean-Marie le Pen, the National Front leader, came into the studio.
Le Pen, a one-time paratrooper who lost an eye in an electoral brawl in 1958, has piloted his party to many successes since the left won power. His main themes consist of attacks onimmigrants working in France and law-and-order. The size of the Front's vote on Sunday - five times its normal level - has also been fueled by economic and social discontent. The Frontdraws many new supporters from the mainstream conservative parties. But it also attracts Socialists and Communists who feel they have been let down.
The European election was made to order for le Pen. It was run on a proportional representational basis, which helps the smaller parties. The candidates elected will sit on the European Parliament in Strasbourg and so do not directly affect the running of France. This makes bad-tempered protest voting easy. One exit poll taken of voters leaving polling stations reported that, if the election had been for the French National Assembly, the National Front would have won only 6 percent.
The far right's high score, which will give it 10 members of the European Parliament, came as a blow to the main opposition group of Gaullists and moderate conservatives under Simone Veil, a former president of the European Parliament. That opposition group hoped to get at least half the vote. This would have enabled it to claim it represented the real majority in France. But Mrs. Veil and her followers polled just 43 percent.
This leaves them with the awkward problem of how to treat the National Front. The opposition can at present only claim to be the majority force in the country if it includes le Pen in its ranks. That would be unacceptable to many moderate conservatives. Mrs. Veil herself has denounced the idea of electoral alliances with the Front.
To win back power, conservative leaders now have to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, risking giving the hard right to le Pen and seeing him become a long-term political influence.