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French vote signals historic challenge to presidential power

France has plunged into the unknown. The conservative opposition won the most votes in Sunday's parliamentary elections, but it was unclear after first returns whether it had won an outright majority. President Fran,cois Mitterrand and his Socialist Party received a setback, but did better than expected.

At press time, according to unofficial but reliable exit polls, the two main conservative parties gained around 42 percent of the vote to the Socialists' 31 percent. The conservatives need 289 of the 577 seats to gain an outright majority and were predicted to win just enough. The Socialists remain the largest single party with about 210 seats. The Communists and the far-right National Front, both received around 10 percent. Other parties split the remaining ballots.

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These results promise to produce political instability. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the President will be forced either to work with an opposition government, a minority government, or some type of weak coalition. In the past, French Presidents have enjoyed a clear majority in the legislature.

How this challenge is resolved will go a long way in determining the country's future political shape. After years of political swings, will France finally stabilize? After building up its nuclear force and asserting influence in the world, will it maintain its assertive role? And, after a generation of dynamic social and economic transformation, will it be able to remain a tolerant society while keeping up with Japan and the United States in the global economic race?

President Mitterrand must first answer the political question. He can appoint anyone prime minister who could command a conservative coalition's loyalty. Speculation focuses on Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, leader of the opposition's most powerful neo-Gaullist faction and an ex-prime minister. But if Mitterrand prefers a more flexible and moderate man, he could pick former prime minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas; ex-president Valery Giscard d'Estaing; or Simone Veil, former president of the European Parliament. And thanks to his party's better than expected performance, he still could opt for a middle-of-the road Socialist such as current Prime Minister Laurent Fabius or Finance Minister Pierre Beregovoy.

Mitterrand has recently hinted that he might step down, triggering a presidential election. Some officials say he figures he could use his improving popularity to win another term, then force another parliamentary vote to win back a legislative majority. Under this scenario, Mitterrand would join those who believe that France still needs an authoritarian style of leadership because its right-left divide cannot be bridged by compromise.

But this approach suggests tactical maneuvering. Polls show that the public prefers Mitterrand to serve out his remaining two years. The campaign's relaxed atmosphere underlined this preference for a calm transfer of power.

This lack of passion reflects a new consensus. Since the 1789 revolution, the French have been sharply divided on the shape of society, whether it should be Catholic or secular, democratic or totalitarian. In this campaign, the essentials were agreed upon, namely that France should remain an independent nuclear power while supporting the Western alliance and that it should make its economy more competitive in world markets without dismantling social benefits.

Mitterrand followed in the legacy of Charles de Gaulle by modernizing the nuclear force and continuing to play a protectorship role in Chad. The formula helped reconcile France with its role in a superpower-dominated world. Unlike West Germany or Britain, Mitterrand's France felt confident enough to almost unanimously back the placing of US missiles in West Germany and take the lead in combating Soviet espionage.

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The new governing team must guard this confidence, political analysts here say. That first means resolving the hostage crisis in Lebanon. Though Mitterrand and the opposition agree on basic French Mideast policy, it is unclear whether they will agree on a strategy to obtain the release of seven kidnapped Frenchmen.

Similar questions remain unanswered on the home front. Between 1945 and 1975, most of France's economic growth was achieved through state-directed development. Both Socialists and Gaullists are now convinced that more entrepreneurial initiative is needed. This economic growth produced a new urban society and brought 4 million immigrants from the third world. As crime and unemployment has mounted in recent years, so has racism. Socialists and conservatives want to increase law and order and toughen nationality procedures.

To achieve these goals, observers say France must make the transition to a more mature political system. This means an orderly transfer of power. Before the Socialists came to power in 1981, the conservatives ruled France for 23 years. The Socialists took the first step toward political maturity by completing a five-year term without predicted turbulence. France must now take the second step by working with a fragmented Parliament.

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