Rocard lifts Socialist hopes with talk of a left alliance

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FRANCE'S Socialists, facing humiliating defeat in parliamentary elections this month, have recovered some popularity since Michel Rocard, their most likely next presidential candidate, urged 'a big bang' to revive the left.

A poll in the left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur yesterday credited the Socialist Party with 22 per cent of voting intentions, two points up on a similar poll a month ago. The latest poll soundings, by the Sofres institute, were taken after Mr Rocard reinvigorated the campaign two weeks ago by urging a new alliance including dissident Communists, ecologists and the centre-left.

Although Mr Rocard's move, which he said was prompted by 'despair' at the Socialist Party's apparent depression, had been expected ever since he spoke at an ecologists' rally in November calling for an alliance, it thrust the former prime minister to the front of the political stage, effectively kicking off his campaign for the presidential election in April 1995 when Francois Mitterrand reaches the end of his term.

The slight improvement in Socialist fortunes could help Mr Rocard, 62, to retain his own National Assembly seat after another poll predicted this week that he would lose it to his centre-right opponent.

Another prominent French politician tipped to lose his seat is Georges Marchais, 73, the Communist Party General Secretary. A poll published yesterday predicted that he would lose in his constituency in the formerly safe Communist southern suburbs of Paris to the ecologist candidate. If he does, this will compound the decline of a party which could reckon on 20 per cent of the vote as recently as the 1970s. It is now expected to take 8.5 per cent.

Another important feature in the Nouvel Observateur poll was the balance between the Gaullist RPR party and its centre-right ally, the Union for French Democracy (UDF). The poll showed that the RPR had lost two points and was level-pegging with the UDF at 19 per cent. The parties are fighting on a single platform and are fielding joint candidates in 500 of the 577 assembly seats.

The run-offs in the remainder could tip the balance in favour of one party. Until now, it has been assumed that the Gaullists would be the biggest party in the new parliament, in which the right is expected to take around 400 seats.

The choice of the new prime minister will lie with Mr Mitterrand. Although there are no rules to govern his choice, the President is expected to opt for the candidate of the leading party. In the case of the Gaullists, this would be Edouard Balladur, who was finance minister in the 1986- 88 'cohabitation' - the last time a conservative cabinet served under the Socialist President.

If the UDF ends up with more deputies in parliament than the RPR, the obvious candidates would be Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former president, or Francois Leotard, 50, one of the right's most promising younger- generation leaders. Mr Giscard d'Estaing, although promoted for the post by his entourage, has said he is not a candidate.

Mr Leotard, a likely presidential contender after 1995, has said he would take it on. Friends of Mr Mitterrand have said he considers him a serious candidate.

(Photograph omitted)