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Europe: French Left Expected To Win Narrow Victory Sunday

Prague, 30 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Led by a newly buoyant Socialist Party, the French Left is expected to win Sunday's run-off balloting for the National Assembly and thereby share power with conservative Jacques Chirac for as long as the next five years of his presidential term.

Opinion polls, most analysts and the Paris stock market share that view -- with the bourse having plunged precipitously this week at the prospect of a Socialist-led government taking over from the outgoing Center-Right coalition. But -- and it's a very big "but" -- the same pollsters, analysts and stock market were almost all wrong seven days ago when they predicted a first-round victory for the incumbent conservatives.

Angry French voters last Sunday confounded the pundits and the bourse by giving the Center-Right coalition its lowest legislative score in two decades, 30 percent (plus another 6.5 percent for the coalitionUs allies). The Left opposition Socialist (24 percent), Communist and ecological parties scored almost 46 percent of the vote.

The voters were angry at the failure of the Center-Right, which has governed for the past four years, to reduce the nation's chronically high unemployment rate (now 12.8 percent) and pump up its sluggish economy. They were also evidently angry at President Chirac, who got himself elected two years ago by promising to focus on joblessness. Five months into his seven-year term, Chirac abruptly changed priorities, increased taxes and imposed austerity measures in order to make France eligible for joining the European Union's monetary union at the start of 1999.

The French frequently describe their two-round voting system with an aphorism: Voters in the first round, they say, let their hearts govern their choice, but in the second round it's their heads that decide. Last Sunday's results were certainly heart-felt, with close to a quarter of the electorate (22 percent) opting for a protest ballot by choosing minor-party candidates and almost a third also protesting by either abstaining or casting blank ballots.

The biggest beneficiary of the huge protest vote was the extreme-Right National Front Party, which achieved its highest score ever with 15 percent of the vote, making it France's third most popular party (after the Gaullists and the Socialists). Exit polls showed later that more than half of unemployed voters chose the blatantly racist, anti-immigrant Front. How those who five days ago either voted for the Front or abstained decide to vote this Sunday will determine who runs France's government into the 21st century.

Chirac and his conservative allies have pleaded with the French this week to vote with their heads on Sunday. In a television address Tuesday evening, Chirac argued that 10 years of Socialist governments in the 1980s and 1990s had brought the country to its present hapless state. But, to many viewers, the President gave the impression of being already resigned to sharing power with the Left as of next week.

Chirac has at his command what is in effect the best polling system in the country, with direct lines to each of the National Assembly's 577 constituencies. The system is not private, but governmental. It is called the RG, for "Renseignements Generaux" , and is an intelligence agency directly under the President's control that works through the country's presidentially appointed 96 prefects. No private polling operation can match the RG's thoroughness and detailed knowledge, which in part explains the private pollsters' huge error last week.

But even the private pollsters are predicting victory for the Left on Sunday. One survey taken Tuesday and Wednesday showed the Socialists and their non-Communist allies winning 290 to 295 seats -- 289 constitutes a majority -- and the Communists about 30. That result would allow the Socialists to form a government without having to depend on the Communists. A second poll, taken Wednesday and yesterday, predicts a lower margin for the non-Communist Left, with 283 seats, plus 32 for the Communists.

In either case Socialist leader Lionel Jospin, who lost to Chirac by three percentage points in the 1995 presidential election, would be France's new Prime Minister. And Communist leader Robert Hue said yesterday that, in the event of a Left victory, his party -- which has many policy differences with the Socialists -- would not seek to join a Jospin-led government -- although, Hue underlined, it would support the Socialists in parliament.

The likely victory of the Left in France, coming a month after the British Labor Party's landslide victory, would surely reverberate across the European continent. The strongest shock waves would probably be felt in Germany and at European Union headquarters in Brussels.

In Germany, conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl will be running for an unprecedented fifth (four-year) term in office within 16 months. Jospin and his German Social-Democrat counterpart, Oskar Lafontaine issued a joint statement this week (Wednesday) pledging to go all-out to cut the high unemployment rates in both countries. That means each would end the austerity measures imposed by conservative governments in Paris and Bonn to meet the stiff standards of qualification for the EU's planned monetary union, known as EMU (for European Monetary Union).

Some commentators today -- particularly in Britain, always at best lukewarm about EMU -- suggest that a Left triumph in France could spell either a postponement or a total abandonment of monetary union. That prospect, even if exaggerated by the British analysts, explains why the arrival of a Jospin government would send shock waves to Brussels as well.

The EU has already been rocked this week by a dispute between Kohl's Government and Germany's hallowed Bundesbank over the bank's legislated independence -- and, by implication, the independence of the EU central bank due to be set up under EMU. And only 17 days before an EU summit meeting mandated to pass a new institutional treaty, its 15 member states are no-where near consensus on the basic structural reforms necessary before the Union makes its planned expansion to Central and Eastern Europe.

Even if, somehow, the French Center-Right manages to squeak out a narrow victory, EMU -- indeed, the whole EU -- will probably never be the same again. Chirac has already indicated that, were his conservatives to win, he would choose Philippe Seguin, the outgoing president of the National Assembly, as his new Prime Minister. Although Seguin has tempered his hard-line anti-EMU rhetoric in recent months to make himself eligible for leading a new government, he would surely concentrate most of his efforts on reducing French unemployment -- thereby making EMU, as previously conceived at least, very much a secondary consideration.

That's what France's electorate told its political establishment it wanted last Sunday. And that's what French voters are likely to repeat this Sunday. If the probable outcome becomes reality, therefore, beware of the shock waves -- which will extend into Central and Eastern Europe as well.