Although predictions for the second round next Sunday are hazardous, the possibility exists of a left-wing, Socialist and Communist, government in Paris for the next five years, in cohabitation with the centre-right President Jacques Chirac.
Such an outcome would throw the European single currency programme, due to be finalised next spring under the chairmanship of the British government, into the melting pot. The Socialists had campaigned on a renegotiation of some terms of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). The Communists fiercely oppose it.
The left - Socialists, Communists and smaller left-wing parties - scored a projected total of 40.8 per cent in the first round of the elections yesterday, according to computer projections. The traditional right scored a crushingly poor 36.0 per cent - a clear rejection of the unpopular Prime Minister, Alain Juppe. Both groupings had chances of winning a majority of seats next weekend, but computer analyses gave a slight advantage to the Left.
Much will depend on the far-right National Front, which scored a projected 15.3 per cent, a record in a parliamentary election. The government's hopes of survival depend on snatching a large proportion of these votes in the second round.
In an attempt to rescue the election, and avoid a humiliating and muddling period of cohabitation with his political opponents, it is possible that President Chirac will promise to change premiers if the centre-right wins in the second round.
The knives were rapidly out for Mr Juppe last night. In a clear call for blood-letting at the top, Charles Pasqua, a semi- dissident member of his RPR (neo-Gaullist party) said the results showed that France wanted a change. "We must make a gesture so that the change happens with the Right, not against it."
Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Party leader, gave a restrained first reaction. A change of government was "possible and desirable", based on the first- round results, he said.
Francois Leotard, leader of the UDF alliance now in coalition government with the Gaullists, begged voters not to elect Socialist and Communists who could "not agree among themselves on Europe". What effect such dire predictions will have is unclear. French voters showed little interest in Europe - or anything else - during a first-round campaign marked by voter cynicism, apathy and distrust. Yesterday's turn-out - about 67 per cent - was the second lowest in recent history.
It remains unclear how big a threat to EMU a left-wing French government would be. Mr Jospin, under pressure from the Communists, and his own radical left, has called for some aspects of the single currency status quo to be renegotiated. In particular, he has insisted that he would reject the "stability pact", dear to Bonn, which would impose financial penalties on governments which allow their budget deficits to grow beyond an agreed limit.
On the other hand, Mr Jospin is a convinced European; Maastricht was negotiated by a Socialist French president and prime minister; The Franco- German alliance is paramount in the politics of both nations. Some kind of deal would be possible. The real unknown would be the attitude and strength of the Communists, adamantly opposed to EMU, who would probably be needed to sustain a left wing majority in the National Assembly.
A total of 289 seats is needed for a majority. The CSA polling organisation and the FR3 television channel estimate that the first-round scores pointed to a Socialist and Communist block in the national assembly of between 298 and 269 seats, including no more than 21 Communists. The centre-right coalition of the gaullist RPR and the UDF alliance was forecast to win between 288 and 265 seats. The NF was forecast to win up to two seats but possibly none.