PARIS — French voters choose a new National Assembly today in parliamentary elections that sagged with somnolence a week ago but then turned into tense drama.
The drama was underscored during the final week of campaigning when Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, who had planned to stay out of the fray, took to television to ask voters to give him "a stable, durable and progressive majority" in the assembly.
Big Majority Expected
Until last Sunday's first round of voting, most analysts believed that the Socialist Party, in the wake of the decisive reelection of Mitterrand a month ago, would win an overwhelming majority of the 577 seats in Parliament.
But the results of the first round after a listless campaign disappointed the Socialists, who fell behind a coalition of conservatives in the total popular vote across the country.
Most analysts believed that this would still enable the Socialists to win a parliamentary majority in today's final round of voting. But Socialist leaders seemed less confident than the analysts, and some conservative leaders felt a glimmer of hope that they could fashion an upset victory.
An Embarrassing Issue
The conservatives, however, handed the Socialists an embarrassing issue during the week when the coalition entered into an electoral arrangement with the extreme right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen in hopes of salvaging some conservative seats in the Marseilles area.
Playing on the widespread feeling that Le Pen, who campaigns on an anti-immigrant platform, is a racist with roots in some of the most unsavory and extremist episodes of French history, Socialist candidates cried alarm all week at a kind of conservative "pact with the devil." A handful of conservatives seemed to agree.
Former Premier Raymond Barre, a conservative candidate for president who was defeated in the first round of the presidential elections in late April, said he was "troubled" by the deal. Conservative Simone Veil, a popular former minister of health, said she was "more than troubled" and proclaimed that, in any contest between a Socialist and a National Front candidate, "I would vote for a Socialist."
Le Pen's National Front did not do well in the first round of the parliamentary elections. Its candidates, failing to get the required 12.5% of the registered vote, were eliminated in all but 30 districts in the country. But they finished ahead of the conservatives in nine of these districts, all but one in the Marseilles area.
Split in Rightist Vote
Fearful of losing seats because of a split in the rightist vote, the conservatives, running in a coalition called the Union of the Rally and of the Center, withdrew from every district in which they had fallen behind a National Front candidate. In exchange, the National Front candidates withdrew from all but four of the districts in which they had finished behind a conservative candidate.
To rationalize what had happened, conservative leaders denied any agreement, described the arrangement as a local one, insisted that individual candidates had withdrawn on their own without any prompting, and derided the Socialists for entering into the same kind of a deal with the Communists.
Not Very Persuasive
But these rationalizations did not appear very persuasive. The Communists, for example, are looked upon in France as far more respectable than the National Front. In an editorial, Serge July, the editor of the trendy Parisian newspaper Liberation, announced the award of gold, silver and bronze palms of "Tartufferie" to various conservatives for their attempts to excuse what had happened. July was alluding to the pious hypocrite Tartuffe, the title character in a 17th-Century comedy by Jean Baptiste Moliere.
Socialists were trying hard to mobilize a large turnout in the final round of the elections. More than 34% of registered voters did not cast a ballot in the first round, the highest abstention rate since the liberation of France from Nazi Germany in 1944. Socialist leaders believe that the non-voters included many overconfident Socialists.
Mitterrand made it clear during the campaign that he did not want an overwhelming Socialist victory. "A clear majority that is not excessive would suit me fine Sunday," he said during his recent television interview. Many French believe that a small majority would make it easier for Mitterrand to bring, as he has promised, some moderate conservatives into the government of Premier Michel Rocard.
A conservative victory would probably not return France to the strange "cohabitation" that dominated the government from March, 1986, until Mitterrand's reelection. After the conservatives won control of the National Assembly in 1986, Mitterrand named Jacques Chirac, the most powerful conservative leader, as premier.