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Deep Changes in French Society Unsettle Socialist Leadership


WHEN Francois Mitterrand successfully ran for the French presidency in 1981, one of his campaign posters showed the somber Socialist candidate against the backdrop of a rural church. The message was clear: For a better, more "moral" France, put your confidence in me.

Eleven years later, as France prepares to vote in regional elections next month, Mr. Mitterrand's Socialist Party has enlisted Bernard Tapie, a flamboyant entrepreneur and owner of the Addidas sports-equipment multinational and the Marseille soccer team, to head its candidate list in the Bouches-du-Rhone region of southern France.

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The juxtaposition highlights one of the changes that France and its politics have experienced in the decade since Mitterrand took office. They are changes that a worn and unpopular Mitterrand, elected until 1995, may not survive.

* The great left-right divide that has defined French domestic politics since the French Revolution more than two centuries ago has disappeared, erased by generalized middle-class living standards and economic policies dictated increasingly at the European level.

* The left's decade in power has eradicated its image as a "moral force" capable of building a better country. The resulting disillusionment has sent a growing number of the more-motivated French voters in search of "new" alternatives - including the Green movement and the extreme right - and created legions of abstainers.

* In a twist of irony, France in the Mitterrand years has experienced a sea change in its perception of money. Long considered something to be hidden, money in the 1980s lost its shameful connotation for most French and became increasingly associated with such positive concepts as growth and better living.

"A decade ago we elected as president a man who made no secret of his disdain for money, for the conjunction of private money and power, and today Mr. Tapie is a baron of the Socialist Party," says Pascal Perrineau, director of Paris's Center for Studies of French Political Life.

This rehabilitation of money and related concepts of profit and entrepreneurship make possible a political career for Tapie - something unimaginable 10 years ago. Even more striking, it marks a rupture with the country's deep Roman Catholic roots in favor of the Protestant influences of northern Europe.

Politically these changes have devastated the French left.

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A "profound transformation" has swept the French political map, replacing the "coherent" left and right with a collection of at least six forces - the Socialists, Communists, and ecologists generally on the left and Centrists, Gaullists, and Jean Marie Le Pen's National Front (FN) to the right, says Philippe Moreau-Defarges, a political scientist with the French Institute for Foreign Relations. But none, he adds, can claim to represent a majority, even with traditional alliances.

One reason observers here are awaiting the March regional elections with great anticipation is that they will be the first national test of French voters' thinking since June 1989. They should give some clue to likely results in national parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 1993.

After a series of special partial elections across the country recently, the March regionals seem certain to reveal a greatly weakened Socialist Party, and probably stagnant traditional right-wing parties. Impressive gains are expected for the country's two principal ecology parties and for the FN.

Some analysts suggest that, depending on how many people stay away from the polls, the Socialists could find themselves only slightly ahead of the FN.

Yet analysts say the left's problems will not benefit France's traditional right until it is able to develop a coherent and distinctive message, something it so far has been unable to do. As abhorrent as his racist, nationalistic, and anti-Semitic message is to most, Mr. Le Pen is providing a lesson in this regard.

No one will be watching the March results closer than Mitterrand. Depending on the outcome, he could decide to drop his unpopular prime minister, Edith Cresson, for someone he believes could improve the Socialists' prospects before parliamentary elections. With an ineffective Socialist majority in the National Assembly, he could call early parliamentary elections. He could even step down from office early, some observers say.

The Socialists' slide is irreversible, according to most analysts. They remain saddled with a 1981 image that they have betrayed. "They came to office championing the virtues of the state, but they have embraced private enterprise," says Mr. Moreau-Defarges. "They touted French difference and independence, but pushed European integration and international cooperation to new heights."

Other factors are the multiplying financial and management scandals tarnishing the Socialist Party's image. "It's not that other parties don't have their scandals, but the Socialists presented themselves as different," says Perrineau. "As their claims of virtue began to ring hollow, the electorate judged them more severely."

The dangers for France in this period of political recomposition cannot be ignored, analysts say. With neither the traditional right nor left able to command a legislative majority, France risks becoming increasingly lost in internal affairs as important changes continue across Europe.

"We could end up with a dragging, flaccid political direction, with complaints about an increasingly aggressive Germany, for example," says Moreau-Defarges, "but no viable response for managing the domination."

Others warn that without clearly defined political imperatives and an opposition to battle against, the French could sink deeper into what writer Pascal Bruckner calls "democratic melancholy" typified by growing estrangement from their country's democratic process - even as countries in Eastern Europe and beyond strive to develop their own democratic institutions.

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