French right laughs at Rocard's 'big bang'

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FOR a leading Gaullist, opposing the French Socialists in the current parliamentary election campaign is as challenging as fighting 'draughts and ectoplasms'.

The comment by Alain Juppe, the secretary general of the Gaullist RPR party, sums up the almost palpable depression in the French left after 18 months of opinion polls predicting that it does not stand a chance, a situation worsened by speculation about the real intentions of their former driving force, President Francois Mitterrand.

It was within that context that Michel Rocard, 62, the most likely Socialist candidate for the next presidential election in April 1995, called two weeks ago for 'a big bang' - he used the English words - to bring together the left, including dissident communists, ecologists and the centre. The first round of the National Assembly elections, expected to usher in a strong conservative majority, is on 21 March. The second, run-off vote is a week later.

In some ways, Mr Rocard's 'big bang' is a logical successor to Mr Mitterrand's 'ouverture' or 'opening' entrusted to Mr Rocard when he became prime minister in the 1988 elections. This aimed at wooing the centre - a handful of centrists such as Jean-Pierre Soisson, the current Agriculture Minister, responded - and bringing in 'la societe civile', professionals whose experience could be used in government. In the latter category were Bernard Kouchner, now the health and humanitarian action minister, the ecologist Brice Lalonde, who was environment minister for four years, and Bernard Tapie, the entrepreneur.

Two weeks after Mr Rocard called on the left not to give up but to work for the future, his initiative remains the most original moment in a campaign lacking in momentum, given the right's conviction that its hour is near while the left placidly awaits the euthanasia of the ballot box.

In the short term, at least, Mr Rocard's strategy seems to have paid off. A monthly barometer of politicians' fortunes published today in Le Figaro magazine, gives the already popular Socialist 46 per cent, four points up on a month ago. Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist leader, Mr Rocard's most likely conservative opponent for the presidency, drops five points to 40 per cent.

The first to respond to Mr Rocard's call was Mr Lalonde, the head of Generation Ecologie, who makes little secret of his admiration for the former prime minister. He welcomed 'the outstretched hand' but was soon called to order by his allies in the Green Party.

Mr Rocard himself, threatened with personal defeat at the polls in his constituency in the Paris suburbs, has tried to brush off what would be an undoubted setback by pointing out that other prominent Socialists, including Mr Mitterrand himself, also lost elections on their way to the top.

As for the centre, it has little to gain now from embracing the 'big bang'. Most centrists are part of the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) of Valery Giscard d'Estaing. They can expect a sprinkling of ministries when the combined RPR-UDF opposition moves into government at the end of the month. But Mr Rocard's move might prompt some to hedge the odd bet.

In the daily Liberation yesterday, Bernard Stasi, one of the senior centrist deputies, welcomed signs that the left was starting to fight back. 'In politics, as in tennis,' he said, 'you must have an adversary capable of a good response.' It was healthy 'for the future majority, which might be made complacent by too facile and massive a victory, to face a left recovering from its torpor and shaking off the past to contest and stimulate it,' he added.