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French Voters Rebuke Chirac; Left, Right Gain

May 26, 1997|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — The French, dissatisfied with the present and worried about the future, dealt an unexpected rebuke to President Jacques Chirac on Sunday, spurning his plea for renewed center-right control of the legislature and voting massively for his foes on the left and right.

Preliminary estimates indicated that the Socialists, Communists and other, small parties on the left won 40.8% of the vote in the first of two electoral rounds to choose the National Assembly, while the governing coalition received 36%.

The far-right National Front garnered 15.3% of ballots cast, its best performance in a legislative election. As returns came in, the anti-immigrant party began positioning itself as the potential kingmaker in deciding who will hold the next majority in the 577-seat chamber.

The Agence France-Presse news agency predicted that the National Front could end up as the arbiter in about 100 three-way runoffs in which its candidate, a candidate from the mainstream right and an opponent from the left will do battle. On Sunday night, the party's leadership was keeping mum about what it might instruct its voters to do.

"What we want is for the National Front to be in the pivotal position, which for France is a guarantee that real change would be possible," said party official Bruno Megret. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party's blustering president, branded the election a personal defeat for Chirac and called on him to resign: "He is beaten. He must leave."

The lopsided election results were at odds with the most recent opinion polls, which had predicted a reduced but renewed majority for the right.

The Socialists, who lost control of France's legislature and premiership in 1993, sensed that a return to running the country's day-to-day affairs is within reach.

"A change is possible. Tonight may be the beginning of a new hope," former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius said.

Socialist leader Lionel Jospin, who was leading in his own electoral bid to return to the National Assembly, said the vote indicated that "the French see their future on the left."

"I call upon all those who want a new policy to assemble for the second [round]," said Jospin, a former education minister. He offered citizens "a pact of change for a new, honest democracy, respectful of all and mindful of each, a bolder and more humane economic policy."

The French will return to the ballot box for the second round of voting next Sunday, when they will choose between candidates who were not outright winners the first time but were supported by at least 12.5% of registered voters.

Major polling organizations forecast that the left will win more seats than the right: 250 to 275 for the Socialists and 19 to 23 for the Communists versus 265 to 285 for the governing coalition and as many as two for the National Front, according to the BVA polling organization. But commentators stressed that there are many unpredictable variables, including whether Sunday's abstention rate of more than 31.5% will be repeated and what the National Front's electorate will do.

A record number of candidates--6,243, a quarter of whom are women--also scattered the first round vote after a lackluster campaign.

"It's a formidable suspense, completely unexpected, for the second round," said Jean-Marie Colombani, editor in chief of Le Monde, the country's most respected newspaper.

"It's now impossible for us to say who will have the majority," Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, anchorman on France's most watched television news program, told his audience.

In a bald political gamble April 21, Chirac, who leads the Rally for the Republic party, dissolved the National Assembly--in which the right had held its biggest majority since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958--and called legislative elections 10 months early.

An advocate of slimming down a bloated government bureaucracy, cutting taxes and state spending and meeting the stringent economic criteria required for France to qualify for the planned single European currency, Chirac asked his people to join him in a "shared elan."

But the election results indicated that many of the French still have grave misgivings about instituting a society in which many of the social rights and economic benefits they have cherished for decades would be pared down or abolished.

"The president of the republic has lost his wager," former Socialist Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement said after polls closed at 8 p.m. and results began to be broadcast.

Chirac, 65, can serve the remaining five years of his seven-year term no matter who ends up controlling the legislature. But with a Socialist prime minister and a leftist legislative majority, implementing many of his policies would be problematic, if not impossible.

In the first round of the last legislative elections, in 1993, the right led the left by more than 14 percentage points. This time, even some of its well-established barons, such as former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, failed to win an outright majority on the first try.

Although visibly stunned at the hiding voters had given them, politicians from Chirac's party and its partner in power, the Union for French Democracy, were stressing Sunday night that the balloting was only the first round and noting that the French have a habit of using their first trip to the polls to blow off steam.

"It's a message for the majority. It's a warning," said former Economics Minister Alain Madelin. "If we don't pay attention, they'll send us out of the classroom."

Clearly, however, the results threw into serious doubt the future of Prime Minister Alain Juppe, a Chirac ally and greatly unpopular figure who was one of the biggest advocates of the early vote and who spearheaded the outgoing majority's campaign.

For many on the French right, the brilliant but frigid Juppe is seen as an enormous electoral liability, and they have long been urging Chirac in private to jettison him in favor of a more popular figure.

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