PARIS — President Francois Mitterrand of France, by refusing to say whether he will run again, is obviously straining the nerves of the conservative candidates for president in the spring elections. They are trying to get him in position to attack him, but he keeps slipping away in the uncertainty.
Almost every politician and analyst feels almost 100% sure that Mitterrand, a Socialist, will run, but a nagging nub of doubt persists, enough to confuse the campaign, all to Mitterrand's advantage.
Premier Jacques Chirac, a candidate, has tried both chiding Mitterrand for refusing to say and pronouncing him a fellow candidate whether he says so or not.
"You cannot leave the French in uncertainty," Chirac said in a campaign speech, "and take them for beni-oui-ouis ." Beni-oui-oui (pronounced benny-wee-wee) is a colorful French expression meaning a yes man.
Chirac said on the radio a few days later: "All his words, his trips, his initiatives, his speeches, his incessant criticism of the government demonstrate clearly that he is, in fact, campaigning. And, if he is campaigning, then he is a candidate. That can't escape the notice of any one."
But these pronouncements by Chirac did not make Mitterrand any easier to attack.
As long as Mitterrand keeps away from the slashing and stands above the political fray as president of all the French, his opponents find that he is an elusive target. Associates of Mitterrand say that he will announce his decision whether to run in early March. All polls indicate that he would far outdistance the main conservative candidates, Chirac and former Premier Raymond Barre, in the first round of voting April 24 and defeat either of them in the second and final round on May 8.
Some recent attempts to attack Mitterrand have backfired. Minister of Justice Albin Chalandon, fretting over Mitterrand's popularity, told a few journalists, "The relations between the president of the republic and the French people are like that of a father and his children. That reminds me of Marshal Petain."
This set off a furor, for Marshal Philippe Petain was the collaborationist leader of the Vichy French government under the Nazi occupation during World War II, and Chalandon seemed to be lumping the two together. The minister, said Pierre Joxe, the leader of the Socialists in the National Assembly, "has once more lost a good opportunity to keep his mouth shut." The furor forced Chalandon to hem and haw and backtrack.
A few weeks earlier, members of Chirac's Gaullist party, the Rally for the Republic, tried to float what the press called the "gaga" issue. The conservatives kept hinting that Mitterrand, who is 71, might not be a very alert statesman at the end of another seven-year term. But this talk struck many French voters as tasteless, and the conservatives soon dropped it.
The question "Will he or won't he?" has become the main issue of the campaign so far. Paris-Match, a weekly photo magazine, is sponsoring a contest called "Mitterrand, yes or no." Contestants must guess the answer plus the date and hour of the announcement. The magazine promises to pay the winner's taxes--at least up to 50,000 francs or almost $10,000 a year--for the full seven years of the next presidential term.
Mitterrand insists that he really has not made up his mind.
"Believe me, I am not having fun playing with you," he told journalists at a reception in the presidential palace last month. "Let those who believe a politician is always insincere give me credit. When the time comes, I will tell the country what seems to me useful to do for its future. Eliminate the notion of game or calculation."
All political signs point to his candidacy. Cartoonists and pundits like to refer to Mitterrand as tonton , the affectionate, childish French word for "uncle," and the chic Paris newspaper Liberation says that "tontomania" is sweeping the country. Silk shirts with a "I love Tonton" motif are on sale for $150 each.
Mitterrand has allowed his supporters to mount an extensive advertising campaign that implores him to run for the good of the nation. The Socialists are spending 5 million francs (almost $1 million) on billboards that proclaim "the Mitterrand generation."
In a magazine ad, 57 well-known French signed a petition crying, "Mimi, don't abandon us," using another of the president's nicknames. Five hundred mayors bought another newspaper ad stating, "He's the one for us."
A Bitter Legacy?
As elections near, in fact, it is difficult for a political analyst to conceive of Mitterrand refusing to enter the race. He would leave far too little time for the most likely alternate Socialist candidate, former Minister of Agriculture Michel Rocard, to mount a successful campaign. Some polls show that Rocard could even be eliminated in the first round. That would be a disaster for the Socialists. Mitterrand, if he refused to run, might leave his party a bitter legacy.