The New Politics of France

March 24, 1992

The collapse of communism and disrepute of Marxism cannot quench a contrarian spirit in Western European and particularly French politics. It must express itself. The regional elections in France showed how. The ruling Socialists, the party of President Francois Mitterrand, fell to 18.3 percent of the vote. The anti-immigrant National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen took 13.9 percent, nearly equaling his last showing. A pragmatic ecology party drew 7.1 percent and a purist rival 6.8 percent, combined doing better than the National Front. The once-proud Communists took 8 percent.

So where has the Left gone? Part of it to the Right, to Mr. Le Pen. And a greater part to the Generation Ecology and Green Parties, there to fight industry over pollution rather than exploitation of workers, to combat nuclear power rather than bombs. That is the true Left in France today. The Socialists, with the unpopular Premier Edith Cresson acting for President Mitterrand, are born-again free-marketeers. So to some extent are the Communists, who would form a coalition with the devil in order to count for something -- for anything -- in today's French scene.

But the two parties that share the conservative heritage of Charles de Gaulle won a combined 33 percent, which would give them 73 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. They would have unencumbered parliamentary power without a mandate. Whether the Socialists will try to install a more traditionally French proportional representation before the elections next year remains to be seen. As it stands, the National Front would count for little and the ecologists and Communists for hardly anything in the National Assembly, based on the latest results, though the regional assemblies do use proportional representation.

Mr. Mitterrand, meanwhile, is supposed to fill out his second seven-year term until 1995, though less than one-fifth of the electorate support him. Although the Socialists are seeking coalitions, they may well have to concede a second "cohabitation" with a conservative cabinet. Meanwhile, the public opinion behind the Greens and the National Front should not be underestimated.

The impulse that once wanted to tear down capitalism for communism now would scrap industry for greenery and ban France to non-Frenchmen. In today's France, nobody is more conservative in defense of the status quo than the Socialists. And with nearly 10 percent of French workers unemployed, it is a difficult status quo to defend.

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