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Europe: French Rebuke Ruling Conservatives In First-Round Vote

Prague, 26 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Discontented French voters have severely rebuked Gaullist President Jacques Chirac and his Center-Right Government in the first round of snap parliamentary elections Chirac called a month ago to insure five more years of conservative rule.

To the astonishment of all opinion pollsters, most analysts and many politicians, only slightly more than a third (36.5 percent) of those who voted yesterday marked their ballots for candidates of the Center-Right coalition (30 percent) and their allies. The coalition and its allies had enjoyed a four-fifths majority in the National Assembly Chirac dissolved on April 22 when he called for general elections a year ahead of schedule.

The opposition Socialists (24 percent) and their allies -- Communists (10), ecology parties (seven) and other Left groups-- garnered almost 46 percent of the vote. And the extreme-Right National Front Party, with openly racist and anti-immigrant policies, registered its biggest tally ever with 15 percent of the vote. Those figures translate into almost one out of four voters (22 percent) opting for a protest ballot by choosing minor-party candidates. Protest votes in the first round of French elections are common, but yesterday's tally went beyond almost all observers' expectations.

Up to the day before the first-round voting, all opinion polls showed the Center-Right gaining a 30-50 seat (52-54 percent) majority in a new Assembly. About the only thing the pollsters and most analysts got right was the number of voters who either abstained or cast blank ballots --almost a third of the electorate (31 percent). Abstentions and blank ballots are another traditional form of electoral protest in France.

But for the second time in two years, the pollsters failed to foresee a Left victory in the first round of national balloting. In the Spring of 1995, when Chirac was elected in the second round, Socialist leader Lionel Jospin led the field in the first round.

Chirac's hopes of avoiding sharing power through 2002 with a Jospin-led Left government now rest on pulling off a similar reversal in next Sunday's second round of parliamentary voting. But the task this time will be much more difficult. For one thing, the evident anger of French voters is largely based on the failure of Chirac and his Prime Minister Alain Juppe to stem France's escalating unemployment rate, now almost 13 percent, despite that having been the major theme of Chirac's presidential campaign.

Instead, within five months of Chirac's election, the two long-time Gaullist allies chose to increase taxes and impose austerity measures on the French. Their declared reason for doing so was to meet the strict criteria needed to join the first wave of European Union nations in the 15-member group's single currency. The "euro" is due to be introduced in 19 months' time.

The French yesterday clearly showed their unhappiness with Chirac and Juppe's abrupt shift in priorities. They rejected the conservatives' promised market reforms to scale down state control, cut taxes and free private enterprise. They accepted the Left's promises to create new state jobs -- in a country where one-quarter of the work force is already toiling for the state -- and to shorten the work week without loss of pay.

A second major reason why the Center-Right will have a hard time winning on Sunday is the critical role the National Front now has in determining the result. About 100 seats will be decided in triangular races -- Left, Center-Right and extreme-Right -- because about that many Front candidates yesterday surpassed the 12.5 percent threshold which allows them to participate in the second round. The Front itself is now expected to win only one or two seats, but its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has decided to maintain all his party's candidates in the second round in order to increase the mainstream Right's difficulties. And later today, Le Pen is expected to call on his followers to vote Socialist in those constituencies where the Front has no second-round candidate.

The big question is how many Front voters will follow their charismatic leader's instructions. In similar past electoral situations, less than a quarter (20 percent) of Front voters followed Le Pen's orders -- with about a half voting for the moderate Right and about a third abstaining. But with many virulently anti-Chirac Front voters now smelling blood, there is no assurance they will follow past patterns.

But if they do, and the Center-Right is able to convince many of its past supporters who abstained yesterday to rescue Chirac, it's possible the Center-Right could emerge with a slim victory margin Sunday. To do so, too, Chirac may have to indicate publicly this week that, in the event of a conservative victory, he will replace his current Prime Minister. Juppe's popularity ratings are the lowest of any French premier in recent history.

As of now, most analysts believe the Left has the edge in Sunday's vote. But France's most respected commentator, Alain Duhamel, said last night that "the second round will be the tightest in 20 years (and the) outcome remains wide open."

Whatever Sunday's result, it's already clear that Chirac's calculated risk in calling for early elections was a miscalculation. If the Left wins, France is in for five years of "cohabitation," which means a weakened, two-voice government. If the Right manages to win a narrow victory, that too will translate into more uncertain rule for France. Either way, the unhappy country is in for even more difficult times.