French Socialists dealt worst defeat in decades Vote buoys Greens, National Front

March 23, 1992|By Ray Moseley | Ray Moseley,Chicago Tribune

PARIS -- France's governing Socialists suffered their worst electoral defeat in three decades yesterday in regional voting, portending a likely loss of power at parliamentary elections next year.

As expected, the neo-fascist National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen and two environmentalist Green parties scored major gains as ++ the Socialists and their main center-right opponents fell back in voting for 22 regional governments across France.

The result reflected widespread anger over corruption and the government's failure to halt spiraling unemployment, which has reached more than 3 million, or 9.8 percent of the work force.

The setback for the Socialists, who captured only 19 percent of the vote yesterday compared with their 36 percent in parliamentary elections in 1988, suggested that France could be headed for a period of political instability that will weaken the authority of President Francois Mitterrand, one of Europe's most influential leaders.

If the result is repeated in parliamentary elections next year, the center-right opposition will form the next government. This could lead to crippling infighting between the government and Mr. Mitterrand, whose term runs until 1993.

Leading Socialists, including Prime Minister Edith Cresson and former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, acknowledged that their party had been dealt a major humiliation by the voters. Ms. Cresson said other Western democracies would be "amazed" by this rebuke to her government but she denied that she would resign as head of government.

Ms. Cresson is one of the most unpopular prime ministers in French postwar history, and she could become the first major casualty of yesterday's setback. There has been speculation that Mr. Mitterrand might replace her with Finance Minister Pierre Beregovoy.

The Socialists' worst showing was in the Paris region, where they finished fourth, with just 13 percent of the vote, behind the center-right, the Greens and the National Front.

The center-right, an alliance of the Union of French Democracy ++ and the Gaullist Rally for the Republic, emerged as the largest political grouping nationally with 34 percent of the vote. But that was below the 37.7 percent it polled in 1988.

Mr. Le Pen, compared to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler by a leading French churchman two weeks ago, capitalized on voter protest against the government and resentment over a rising tide of Arab immigration to take 14 percent of the vote for his National Front. The Front, whose program calls for repatriating Third World immigrants, scored only 9.7 percent in the 1988 parliamentary vote.

Despite the Front's generally strong showing, it captured less than 30 percent of the vote in the Alps Maritime region around Nice, falling short of Le Pen's prediction that it would get 40 percent. Political commentators said this represented a blow to Le Pen's hopes of becoming mayor of Nice in the next municipal elections.

In the Provence-Alps-Cote d'Azur region, centered on Marseille, the National Front took 23 percent of the vote, running second to the center-right and pushing the Socialists into third place. But in Marseille itself, millionaire businessman Bernard Tapie, who ran under the Socialist banner, scored a surprise victory over all other candidates.

The two Green parties captured a total of nearly 14 percent of the vote nationally. Many of the votes that went to them apparently were from left-wingers registering a protest against the Socialist record in office.

The election confirmed the decade-long decline of the Communist Party. It won 8.5 percent of the vote, down from 11.3 percent in 1988.

Polls had indicated little voter interest in the regional elections. suggesting a high rate of abstention. But in fact a respectable 66.5 percent of the nation's 36.7 million registered voters went to the polls.

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