France plunged Sunday into political confusion. Legislative elections left Socialists and conservatives running in a dead heat. According to final exit polls, President Fran,cois Mitterrand's Socialist Party won between 265 and 285 deputies. The mainstream conservative coalition also took between 265 and 285 deputies.
With the communists capturing 25 deputies and the extreme right National Front garnering one or two deputies, no single party will obtain a clear majority in the 577-seat National Assembly.
The uncertain results send a warning to Mr. Mitterrand. A month ago, he soared to reelection - only to find it impossible to translate this smashing personal success into a legislative majority. Frenchmen endorsed the President's reassuring presence, his steady hand at the helm during the last two years of ``cohabitation'' when he ruled with conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac.
Despite the stronger-than-expected right-wing showing, Socialist officials rule out a return to power by Mr. Chirac or another hard-line conservative. Nor, they say, will the election result in a repeat of the 1981 Socialist-communist coalition.
Mitterrand is expected to try to rule with the support of a swing group of centrist deputies.
``People voted for Mitterrand, not for the Socialists,'' explained one Socialist official in private. ``In many voting districts, Socialist candidates ran as much as 10 points behind the President.''
During the legislative election campaign, the President assured that he would not repeat his ``socialist'' experiment of 1981. There will be no massive nation alizations of industry, no notorious new corporate taxes, and no bold attempts at shortening the work week.
The moderate Mitterrand promised this time to ``choose a prime minister from the new majority.''
He could appoint a centrist leader such as Simone Veil or Pierre M'ehaignerie as prime minister. Or he could stick with his present choice, the moderate ``social democratic'' Michel Rocard. Many here compare Mr. Rocard to United States Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis. The two men are small in stature, dull public speakers, intellectual, and technocratic. Their greatest asset: a can-do image of competence.
``Rocard and Dukakis both believe in the same thing: a free market with a human face,'' says Jean-Pierre Jouyet, a top-ranking Ministry of Industry official. ``They don't want `socialism.' They want to work with industry.''