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French Return to Familiar Ground

Election: Voters, fearing austerity moves, respond to left's promises of jobs and continued social services.


PARIS — The French have seen the future, and opted instead for the past.

Their choice of a Socialist-controlled National Assembly on Sunday was disastrous for President Jacques Chirac, who himself provoked the upset by summoning voters to the polls 10 months early. He has been badly wounded, perhaps mortally for his prestige and authority.

With nearly five years left in his seven-year term, the neo-Gaullist president is condemned to "cohabit" politically for at least a year with Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin, whom he designated Monday as the new prime minister in a swift bow to the popular will. The French Constitution does not permit Chirac to order elections during the first year of the new National Assembly's existence.

"The president sowed the wind; he has reaped the whirlwind," said Claude Cabanes of the Communist Party newspaper L'Humanite.

Jospin, leaving the Elysee Palace after meeting with Chirac, told reporters he will form his government "quickly, within the week." Jospin--Chirac's main adversary in the 1995 presidential election--succeeds Chirac loyalist Alain Juppe, who formally resigned two hours earlier.

Voters' repudiation of Chirac came despite his pleadings that France must revolutionize to meet global challenges on the threshold of the 21st century. Instead, voters preferred old, comforting remedies that seemed fatally discredited just a few years ago.

Unlike the Labor Party of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, which ended 18 years of Conservative domination in a landslide victory a month ago, Jospin's Socialists advocate tax-and-spend policies that are the antithesis of Blair's market-powered economics.

Their foes from the center-right spoke during the campaign of streamlining France's economy and society to make them more like those in Britain or the United States. The Socialists countered with more familiar pledges: no cuts in an increasingly expensive welfare and social service system; continued involvement of the state in business; more government-funded jobs; and no loosening of labor laws.

Though once seemingly tarnished for good by the mediocre record and repeated corruption and abuse-of-power scandals of Socialist Francois Mitterrand's 14-year presidency, the French left on Sunday wrested back the control of the National Assembly it lost in 1993, winning 319 of 577 seats.

The Socialists, with 241 seats, did not secure an absolute majority but once again became the biggest party in the lower house of Parliament.

The Communists, meanwhile, whose 38 votes in the National Assembly will be essential for the survival of Jospin's government, oppose the euro, the single European currency, and want to negotiate a whole new pact on European unity. Jospin also must contend with Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a former Socialist defense minister, and other "Euroskeptics" in his own camp.

Jospin's choice of ministers will send a message to France's European partners and markets on the policies he will follow. For proponents of the euro, the most reassuring figure would be Jacques Delors, a French Socialist who is a former European Commission president. The most unsettling would be a Communist or someone such as Chevenement.

For the time being, the European Union is watching and waiting. "Europe has always been at the heart of France's ambitions. I am confident that France will pursue its determined action in favor of European integration," a hopeful Jacques Santer, Delors' successor as European Commission president, said Monday in Brussels.

The country's army of unemployed now numbers more than 3 million, a record, and disgruntlement over politicians' flagrant and continuing inability to solve this and other pressing social problems is such that since 1981, no sitting government has been returned to office by the electorate.

"The French tried the right. And then the left. And then the right again. And then the left again," wrote Jean d'Ormesson of the French Academy in Monday morning's Le Figaro newspaper. "They are like poor birds banging their heads against a window, like brainless sheep vainly seeking an exit."

Such perplexity and despair have led to the success of Jean-Marie Le Pen's extreme-right National Front, which won a single seat Sunday, although its 3.1 million popular votes were more than half again as many as the Communist Party's tally in first-round balloting May 25.

Election winners and some of the losers warned that Jospin's new government has no right to fail, since the French are already alienated from officials in Paris who make decisions on their behalf, and whose accomplishments, left and right, have fallen far short of electoral promises since the beginning of the 1980s.

In fact, some observers forecast, the failure of yet another government--France's 12th since 1981--to fulfill people's hopes could threaten the French political system itself by sending millions more into the ranks of the National Front.

"For the left, it's a second chance that is offered to it," analyst Serge July said in the Paris daily Liberation. "In a way, it's a last chance . . . for all the democratic groups of this country."

* BUSINESS FALLOUT: Election prompts postponement of Telecom offering. D3

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