France Prepares to Vote: The new right reveals its plans to take power: With the ruling Socialists in apparently terminal decline, Julian Nundy in Paris previews the coming polls

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The Independent Online
AS THE campaign for next month's elections to the French National Assembly, France's lower house of parliament, gathers steam, conservative opposition politicians are peppering their speeches with words like 'ambush', 'traps' and 'mines'.

Such words do not reflect fears for the campaign. They concern what follows when the opposition expects to be in government.

Between now and the end of voting on 28 March, the opposition expects an easy ride. Opinion polls predict that the conservative alliance of the Gaullist RPR and the centre- right Union for French Democracy (UDF) is set for a spectacular comeback.

With President Francois Mitterrand's Socialists in a state of apparently terminal depression after 12 years at the helm and racked by accusations of corruption and wrong-doing, it is difficult to imagine anything but a comfortable right-wing victory. As some leaders of the right admit, it will be victory by default - caused by the implosion of the left, rather than by a well-merited return to government.

The conservatives are apprehensive because their victory will usher in 'cohabitation bis' - a second bout of conservative government under the Socialist President.

The first 'cohabitation' when Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist leader, became Prime Minister in 1986, is a painful memory for the right. In 1988, after careful manoeuvring, Mr Mitterrand defeated Mr Chirac to gain a second presidential term. Calling parliamentary elections, he installed a new Socialist prime minister and the right was back in opposition for another five years.

The essential difference between governing France then and now is that then, the world economy was prospering and there were few troubling international issues. With recession and the fall of communism, the reverse is now true. Politically, Mr Mitterrand, 76, will not be seeking a new mandate when his current term ends in May 1995.

Until then, it is in the international arena that Mr Mitterrand can retain most of his influence and flair. By convention, the President, the chief of the army, runs defence and foreign affairs. Already, the computers at his Elysee Palace have been hooked up to those of the Defence and Foreign ministries. All diplomatic telegrams are seen by the Elysee and the Quai d'Orsay simultaneously. In 1986, the right boasted about having 'cut the water, gas and electricity' to the presidency.

Clearly, Mr Mitterrand, who shows no signs of bowing to conservative wishes and leaving office early, has no intention of letting history repeat itself.

France has 35,000 troops abroad, nearly 5,000 of them in UN forces in former Yugoslavia. Differences over France's international role could be explosive. One way to avoid this would be for the next cabinet to opt for a largely internal role, managing the economy and social issues, leaving diplomacy and defence to the President.

If this were the strategy, then it would only be feasible under a prime minister such as Edouard Balladur, the former Gaullist finance minister and the current favourite, whose areas of interest are mainly domestic. Other possible candidates, such as Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former president, would adapt less easily to such a role.

The campaign proper took off last week with the presentation by the right - joined together in the Union Pour la France (UPF) and fielding joint candidates in all but 80 constituencies - of its programme for government. This programme, which assumes a normal full parliamentary term of five years, includes a continuation of the privatisation programme that began during the first 'cohabitation', new measures to fight unemployment and - in a real innovation - independence for the Bank of France.

A few hours later, six cabinet ministers called a press conference to dismiss the right's programme as 'vague' even 'dangerous'. However, more interesting than the presentation and the government criticism were the personalities chosen by each camp.

All the conservatives who presented the programme were 'quadras', politicians in their forties who are seen as the leaders of the future. Those called on to debunk them were of the same generation. The oldest, but one of the most youthful in appearance, on the government side was Bernard Kouchner, 53, the Health and Humanitarian Action Minister.

Mr Mitterrand will be 78 at the end of his term. All his most likely successors - Michel Rocard and Jacques Delors on the left, Mr Chirac and Mr Giscard d'Estaing on the right - are in their sixties.

Among the conservatives, whose two parties have suffered because of rivalry between Mr Chirac and Mr Giscard d'Estaing going back nearly two decades, many who were in their mid-forties at the beginning of the Eighties feel they have lost out because the feud smoothed the way for the left and kept them in opposition. Now, led by Francois Leotard, 50, of the UDF, the next age group seems set on taking centre stage.

Mr Leotard, who has let it be known that he is a prime ministerial candidate, had corruption charges against him dropped earlier this month in a case linking his purchase of a house in his constituency on the Cote d'Azur with the award of a municipal building contract. The Lyons court that dropped the case said he was benefiting from a statute of limitations that made it impossible to press charges three years after the alleged misdeed took place. His lawyers, who insisted that the procedure was political, dismissed this as pure self-justification by the Lyons judges.

Corruption allegations have been much more frequent on the left, and this is the greatest single issue contributing to the Socialists' downfall. Embezzlement of public funds, covered by a parliamentarians' amnesty law, illegal party funding and insider trading have all marred the image of the party that promised France something different in 1981.

This month, even Pierre Beregovoy, the Prime Minister, whose image had been untarnished, was damaged by news that he had accepted an interest-free loan of 1m francs ( pounds 120,000) from Roger-Patrice Pelat, a friend of the President who had been linked to insider trading. Traces of Mr Beregovoy's repayment to the Pelat estate - Pelat has since died - have been hard to find. The Pelat family said part of the reimbursement was in antiques.

Pierre Lellouche, a Gaullist campaigning in the northern suburbs of Paris, said voters told him: 'You're all corrupt and, if you're not, you can't do anything anyway.' Jean- Francois Kahn, editor of the weekly L'Evenement du Jeudi, summed it up: 'If you're a politician, you're corrupt. If you're famous, you're suspect. If you're a Socialist, you're responsible.'

The rejection of conventional politicians, which inevitably taints the National Assembly as a whole, is reflected in the popularity of the two ecologist parties, which are allied for the coming vote. Some polls have even put them just ahead of the Socialists.

The two green parties are a respectable alternative for an electorate whose only outlets for a protest vote in the past were the Communist Party or the far-right National Front.

A poll in the current issue of Paris Match gives the ecologists 17 per cent, the National Front 12 per cent, and the Communists 9 per cent, a total of 38 per cent for candidates who, at best, can only expect to be on the fringes of government. The rise of the ecologists is seen as part of a 'political re-composition', which analysts say will eventually re-shape the left.

For the time being, however, the main political sport will be to see how the right deals with Francois Mitterrand and vice versa. Mr Mitterrand has the upper hand. Unlike last time, personally, there is little at stake for him. He is not going to seek re-election in 1995. He can, however, retire whenever he sees fit and could choose a bad time for the right to favour his allies.

According to at least one opposition politician, a former cabinet minister, this is to underestimate the President. 'His reasoning is never mediocre and I am sure he will be searching for the best thing to do for France,' he said.

Others are less sure. Last week, Mr Mitterrand told Le Monde that he envisaged a serene and peaceful 'cohabitation' and would go into it 'without arms, without armour and without fear'. Franz-Olivier Giesbert, editor of the conservative daily Le Figaro, said the statement was as convincing as kind words from 'the wolf to Little Red Riding Hood'.

(Photographs and opinion poll omitted)

Leading article, page 18

Gavyn Davies, page 21