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French politicians turn from caf'e chats to high-tech campaigning

Alain Carignon stunned the French political world with his revolutionary campaign technique: He used a taped telephone message to contact voters. ``In the past, campaigning in France meant going to the local caf'e and having a chat,'' says Mr. Carignon, the dynamic young mayor of Grenoble. ``That no longer works. We need to use new, modern methods, like American politicians.''

The adoption of American-style campaign tactics in the run-up to the March 16 legislative elections stems from a profound change in French politics -- a decline of ideology. Past elections were dominated by the radically differing visions of the competing parties. Today the polarization between left and right has diminished, feeding a drift toward compromise and consensus.

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``The left used to offer voters a plan for a collectivist society and the right used to offer an individualistic society,'' says Pierre Frappat, a Grenoble author. ``Now they both talk about a liberal, free-enterprise society.''

In this ideological no-man's land, candidates must be sold, less by their political ideas and more like any other consumer product. Political advertising, not long ago unheard of in France (and still banned on television), is booming.

In addition to the telephone tape recordings, the candidates are trying to create an attractive image through direct mailings, video clips, billboards, and large, old-style political rallies.

Alain Bouldouyre, a Lyon-based advertising consultant for the opposition Union for French Democracy, says that each major party will spend at least 200 million francs ($28.5 million) on the campaign.

``Advertising used to be seen as in bad taste, like all commercial things in France,'' Mr. Bouldouyre says. ``But today it's viewed as modern and chic, and necessary.''

The most celebrated use of advertising occurred in the 1981 presidential campaign. Polls showed that the French were leery of casting their votes for the Socialist candidate, Fran,cois Mitterrand. An advertising campaign was designed to reassure them. It pictured Mr. Mitterrand in front of a typical French village, its church steeple highlighted. The caption read, ``La Force Tranquille'' -- The Calm Strength. Mitterrand won.

In this year's campaigns, a poster of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic shows party leaders arm in arm, tripping lightly across a green field, a clear, blue sky in the background. A slogan proclaims ``Vivement Demain,'' roughly, ``Hooray for Tomorrow.''

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The Socialist response has been vigorous. At the end of 1985, portraits of frightened, recoiling people appeared on billboards. They screamed: ``Help! The right is coming back.'' A new Socialist poster shows a cartoon wolf. Above him appears the question: ``Tell me, pretty right, why do you have such big teeth?''

``The advertising is directed to the young voter,'' explains Bouldouyre. ``Everyone's after them.''

Unlike their parents, these young voters often are not interested in politics. One Louis Harris poll showed that 55 percent of 18- to 23-year-olds consider themselves ``not at all concerned'' with politics. Five years ago, the figure was only 40 percent. With political passions cooling, ideology has become a turn-off. Opinion polls show disillusionment among many voters. In this atmosphere, Bouldouyre says, the electorate, and especially younger voters, ``want good looks, frankness, and vigor.''

Mayor Carignon, himself a Gaullist, fits this description. Son of a local journalist, Carignon exudes none of the aristocratic aura of his predecessors in Grenoble. He speaks to audiences in a clear, direct manner, espousing pragmatism and a bipartisan approach to policymaking.

These qualities have helped him become one of the stars of a new generation of French politicians. On the left, the new breed includes 39-year-old Prime Minister Laurent Fabius and 46-year-old Education Minister Jean-Pierre Chev`enement. On the right, it is represented by Carignon and 43-year-old Fran,cois L'eotard, a leader of the Rally for the Republic party.

In some ways, the new generation is moving toward an American approach to democracy. Carignon says older French leaders wielded near unlimited power as if by divine right. He says younger leaders tend to respect dissenting views and are more willing to compromise.

Already, on a national scale, France feels the effects of these new politicians and their philosophies. Change can be found in many areas of government. For example, in the last few years the government has given up control of television and radio.

More significantly, after the March elections, Mitterrand will likely have to share power with a legislature controlled by his political opponents. Such a situation may be routine in the United States. But in France, it has never happened. Like many people here, Carignon is unsure it will work. ``We'll have to see,'' he says.

Next: Economic growth alters campaign's focus.

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