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French socialism embraces capitalism. Mitterrand shifts country toward center

Bernard Tapie is no traditional French socialist. He is not a worker, a union official, or a school teacher. He is a dashing, 43-year-old, Paris millionaire businessman who made his name salvaging bankrupt companies, and who now is trying to make his name as a Socialist politician.

Mr. Tapie's candidacy in Sunday's legislative elections illustrates the changing contours of French socialism. When Fran,cois Mitterrand first became President in 1981, he set out to ``break with capitalism.'' He conducted sweeping nationalizations, created a huge work-sharing program, and imposed an onerous wealth tax.

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Now Mr. Mitterrand is leaning toward the center and embracing capitalism. The pragmatic strategy won him a smashing reelection victory three weeks ago against conservative Jacques Chirac. And although results of the first round of voting Sunday were not available until after press time, polls show the Socialists heading for a sweep of as many as 400 of the 577 seats in the next National Assembly.

``A few years ago, I would never have felt comfortable with the Socialists,'' Tapie admits. ``They've changed. They accept business. They support business.''

When Mitterrand dashed for growth in 1981, the result was a disaster. Inflation soared, the trade deficit grew, and the franc suffered three devaluations. There was no choice except to accept the hard rules of the marketplace.

The Communist Party's decline smoothed the way for the Socialists. In the present elections, the Communists are expected to lose all but a handful of their 35 parliamentary seats.

``We no longer have to look over our shoulders to the Communists,'' says Bernard Fontaine, a Socialist activist in Marseille. ``It's the right who must now look over its shoulders.''

Mr. Fontaine is referring to the ultra-right menace of Jean-Marie Le Pen. The candidates of his xenophobic National Front could open a clear path for Socialist victories by splitting the right-wing vote.

The Front's strength is concentrated here on France's Mediterranean coast, where large numbers of Arabs live. Mr. Le Pen ran for parliament in Marseille as a first step toward running for mayor in next year's municipal election. Tapie's goal is to stop him.

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``The National Front is dangerous, led by fanatics,'' Tapie says. ``We can't just be bourgeois chumps and fight them with kiddie gloves.''

In addition to combating the far-right in Marseille, Tapie is a key player in Mitterrand's larger political strategy. Mitterrand has promised a political ``opening'' to moderates eager to join him in constructing a solid center-left majority. Most well-known centrists turned down the offer, so the President has been forced to turn to nonpolitical figures such as Tapie.

``It's a fraud, a false opening,'' says Jean-Claude Gaudin, leader of Marseille's moderate Union for French Democrats. ``Tapie is just a media star, who will go back to Paris as soon as the election is over.''

Militant Socialists also want little to do with the President's attempt to ``open'' his majority to the center. When they look at Tapie's campaign poster, they seethe. It shows no Socialist emblem and is printed in a bold blue and purple, not in socialist rose. Before Tapie decided to run, these local militants had picked Gerard Bismuth as their candidate for parliament.

``I received a call direct from Paris,'' Mr. Bismuth recalls. ``[Socialist Party chief] Pierre Mauroy got on the line, and told me to step down.''

Charisma and charm is helping the outsider businessman overcome these obstacles. Son of a factory worker, he became a national figure by turning troubled companies such as Look ski bindings, Mazda batteries, and La Vie Claire health foods into a business empire which last year generated sales of half a billion dollars. A public relations dynamo, he parlayed this business success into media stardom by hosting a popular television show, ``Ambitions.''

Tapie's goal is to attract voters who normally would not vote for socialists. At his campaign headquarters, he hands out paperback copies of his autobiography, ``Gagner'' - ``To Win.''

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