French Conservatives Win Assembly Control : Parties Take Majority Away From Socialists; Mitterrand Faces Problem in Choice of Premier

March 17, 1986|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — A coalition of conservative parties wrested narrow control of the French National Assembly from the Socialist Party in Sunday's parliamentary elections, setting the stage for two years of possible conflict with Socialist President Francois Mitterrand.

But the margin of victory was so slim that it foreshadowed a good deal of confusion on the French political scene. Under the French constitution, it is Mitterrand himself who will choose the premier to run the parliamentary-style government.

The victory of the Conservatives was not confirmed until 7 a.m. today when the government announced that with four seats still undecided, the Conservative coalition had won 289 seats, the bare minimum needed for a majority. Since the conservatives failed in their goal of a resounding majority, the results will give Mitterrand a good deal of leeway in making his choice of a premier.

A complex proportional representation system slowed counting, and politicians were commenting on the basis of computer projections based on early returns and on voter surveys. In its final projection before going off the air, Antenne 2, one of the government's television channels, had predicted the following returns:

The conservative coalition and its allies, 44.4% and 295 seats (six more than a majority).

The Socialists and their allies, 33.1% and 212 seats.

The Communists, 9.8% and 36 seats.

The far-right National Front, 9.8% and 33 seats.

This would be the first time since President Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958 that a French president, regarded as one of the world most powerful executives, would face a potentially hostile Parliament and the first time that he would not have a compliant premier at his side.

And this could turn the French political system around completely. Conservatives, supported by legal experts, insist that the letter of the constitution gives the premier more powers than the president.

Politicians now look toward Mitterrand for his next move. But the president, although he had commented earlier in the day to reporters that the French seemed to like having both leftists and rightists in government at the same time, made no public statement after the returns started to come in.

The Socialist Party, while losing control of the National Assembly, kept its position as the largest single party in France. Its score of more than 30% was regarded as a moral victory by most political analysts.

Socialist Premier Laurent Fabius, sure to lose his position in the new government, looked satisfied with the results. In a statement on national television, he called the Socialist tally "completely remarkable" and said, "There will be other election dates, and we are more than ever the great movement of hope."

Strong Rightist Showing

The biggest surprise of the election, however, was the relatively high score of the National Front, which entered the National Assembly for the first time. Its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, campaigned throughout the country on an anti-immigration platform that struck a chord with many French irritated with large numbers of North African Arabs in the country.

Le Pen, whose more than 30 seats probably prevented the conservative coalition from taking a strong majority, obviously benefited as well during the last week of the campaign from anti-Arab sentiment provoked by a crisis in Lebanon over the reported murder of a French hostage by the Muslim fundamentalist organization Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War).

The election returns also confirmed the extraordinary decline of the Communist Party. Once the strongest single party in France, the Communists fell to the same level as the National Front in votes. The Communist total was its lowest in a French general election in 54 years. In eight years, its vote has dropped in half.

Former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, leader of the Union for French Democracy, one of the two main parties in the conservative coalition, blamed the proportional representation system for the failure of the conservatives to win an overwhelming majority. Fulfilling an election promise, the Socialists reimposed the electoral system that had been abandoned by De Gaulle.

"What I fear the most," he said in his home district of Chamlieres, "is that political circumstances will let pass the economic opportunity that is available to us."

Plan to Liberalize Economy

Giscard d'Estaing and Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris and former premier who heads the Gaullist Rally for the Republic, had joined together on a platform promising to liberalize the French economy, lifting government controls and selling nationalized industries to private investors.

Most analysts believe that a huge conservative majority would have forced Mitterrand, whose term ends in 1988, to name Chirac premier since he heads the largest party in the coalition.

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