Switch in French mood puts spotlight on local polls

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VOTERS in France's provinces choose new local councillors tomorrow against a political background which has suddenly become unpredictable, even volatile.

The seats in half the 'cantons', the wards of all 95 departments - except Paris which has a special status - are up for re-election in routine elections which, apart from being a test for the popularity of the government of Edouard Balladur, would have presented little real interest a month ago.

In the past three weeks, however, the scene has changed.

First, the assassination of Yann Piat, a conservative National Assembly deputy from the Var department, on 25 February, has fixed attention on how some departments, the equivalent of counties, are run. Maurice Arreckx, the Var council leader, and a deputy leader were questioned in connection with the shooting after Piat left letters accusing the two men of hostility towards her.

Second, opposition to a proposal by the Gaullist Mr Balladur to allow employers to pay young workers 80 per cent of the minimum legal wage, known as the Smic, to help reduce youth unemployment, was unexpectedly widespread and protests became violent.

This week, for the second Thursday in succession, youths with clubs and stones smashed windows, and set alight and overturned parked cars in Paris.

Altogether, 230,000 people demonstrated in towns all over France. In the Breton city of Nantes where casseurs, or 'smashers', were also on the rampage, police took five hours to end the violence.

In Paris, while police and students said the instigators had no connection with the student organisations and trade unions behind the march, many students said they had joined in the fight which broke out when police told them to disperse. 'You fight force with force,' one said in a radio interview.

Many participants in the May 1968 riots which paralysed France blame heavy-handed police action for angering youngsters then and causing the movement to grow. As for the casseurs themselves, sociologists describe them as youngsters from the underprivileged suburbs seeking an outlet for their frustrations in a world which promises them little more than a lifetime on the dole.

In the Var, investigations into the Piat murder have turned up reports of links between local politicians and the criminal underworld, especially in sharing out building contracts along the Mediterranean coast near Toulon.

The impact of the results nationally on Mr Balladur, currently viewed by pollsters as the best placed politician to take the presidency when Francois Mitterrand's term ends in 14 months' time, will preoccupy analysts the most.