For Mitterrand the imperial age is over: After Sunday the President will be a lonely man, says Julian Nundy

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THE CURTAIN is about to rise on the last act of 'Mitterrandisme'. Sunday's elections to the National Assembly are, according to all opinion polls, about to bring in 'cohabitation bias'. In practice this will mean a conservative cabinet under the Socialist President. It will deprive Francois Mitterrand of a government composed of his own supporters and isolate him for his last two years at the Elysee palace.

The conservative win, even the conservatives say, will reflect disillusionment with the Socialists, who are wearied by power and scandals, rather than enthusiasm for the right. With a massive conservative majority in the 577-seat National Assembly a foregone conclusion, the most optimistic scenarios have the electors effectively doing the groundwork for what is hailed as a restructuring of the entire French political scene, a recomposition politique. If this happens, it will break down the current partisan system and bring together men and women of goodwill and solid democratic principles, free of the dogmas of the past.

On the left, such an outcome already has a blueprint of sorts in the 'Big Bang' propagated by Michel Rocard, the most likely next Socialist presidential candidate. He wants a new centre-left coalition, running from dissident communists, who have already left or plan to leave France's moribund and Stalinist party, through the emerging ecologists, to the centre.

On the conservative right, the challenge is to destroy the extremist National Front as a force and to end the feud between the Gaullist RPR party of Jacques Chirac and the Union for French Democracy (UDF) of Valery Giscard d'Estaingwhich has bugged the two groups for nearly 20 years. This can only be done when one or other leaves the scene.

Whatever the theories, the practice is likely to be different and any real recomposition politique may have to wait a while. After the elections next Sunday and the second, run-off vote on 28 March, France is in for another two years of electioneering.

In 1995, if the regular timetable is maintained, there will be at least two elections. The most important will be to find a successor to President Mitterrand who is scheduled to leave office at the end of his second seven- year term in May that year. If another left-wing head of state is chosen, the likelihood is that the new president will dissolve the National Assembly to seek a parliament that will support him, adding yet more elections.

The other elections definitely set for that year are municipal ones. City halls are a traditional and powerful base for many of the best political careers. Cities such as Marseilles and Nice, and possibly Bordeaux, will be looking for new mayors. The elections this month are being treated by a good number of politicians almost as primaries, litmus tests of personal popularity.

There are those like Michel Rocard, who is in danger of losing his suburban Paris seat, and Jacques Chirac, who think that their next appointment with history will be at the 1995 presidential elections. Others, such as Bernard Tapie, the entrepreneur and current Minister for Towns, will be looking for cities. Mr Tapie's apparent ambition is to dethrone Robert Vigouroux, the current mayor of Marseilles, and take over the city that was the fief of Gaston Deferre, one of the great names of French post-war socialism.

There are yet others, such as Francois Leotard , of the UDF, whose sights seem to be set on an even later date, the presidential elections after next. If Mr Mitterrand completes his term and the current seven-year presidential mandate is maintained, these will be in 2002.

One consequence is that this month's elections are personally crucial only for incumbent deputies who fear their seats are in danger, or for first-time candidates.

Once the final results are in, the balance between the RPR and the UDF will be important. In a game whose rules can be set only by Mr Mitterrand, the President is expected to choose a prime minister from the larger of the two groups - although nothing obliges him to. The favourite is Edouard Balladur of the RPR. Another could be Mr Chirac, Prime Minister in the 1986-88 'cohabitation', although he has said he is hostile to the idea. In the UDF, the top two candidates are Mr Giscard d'Estaing and Mr Leotard.

With polls predicting a huge chunk of 420 seats out of 577 for the right, a forecast which may well be deflated somewhat in the actual voting but will still leave the conservatives a massive majority, some politicians say they fear this could be difficult to manage. A smaller margin between government benches and the opposition tends to encourage unity, they say. With a big majority, the many differences between the members of the centre-right parties will emerge.

The differences, which split the parties broadly along the lines of the 'yes' and 'no' camps in last year's campaign for ratification of the Maastricht treaty, see some in favour of the current policy of a 'strong franc' anchored firmly to the German mark and others backing an effective withdrawal from the European Monetary System to let the franc float and stimulate exports.

Europe is a frequent point of division. Already, the conservatives are promising a fresh fight over the Gatt trade talks and pushing for a new reform of the EC's Common Agricultural Policy, issues likely to infuriate France's main European partner, Germany. Mr Leotard said this week that only Mr Chirac, were he to be prime minister, would have a broad enough base of support to control what threatens to be an unruly parliament.

In the coming two years one category in all parties will be jostling for the limelight. These are the 'quadras', the 'quadragenaires' or 'fortysomethings', who will be jockeying to take over from their elders. Although approaching 51, Mr Leotard is identified as the top 'quadra' on the right. On the left, there are Mr Tapie and Bernard Kouchner, the Health and Humanitarian Action Minister. They and their coevals will be positioning themselves for the responsibilities they would like when they will be 'quinquas' or 'sexas' - for few in France believe in a Gallic Clinton-effect rejuvenating the political class.

The ecologists are the wild card. Tipped to take between 12 and 15 per cent of the popular vote, they have occasionally been seen as potential power brokers. With the mainstream parties becoming ever more alive to environmental issues, it is more likely, as in Germany, that they will dissipate or become allied to other groups.

As for the role of President, his room for manoeuvre looks extremely limited. Although he traditionally retains control of foreign affairs and defence - the President is chief of the armed forces - it will be difficult, even constitutionally dangerous, to go against the will of an elected government with a solid parliamentary majority.

In two years' time, Mr Mitterrand faces the prospect of handing over to a successor whom he heartily dislikes. His distaste for Mr Chirac and Mr Rocard, the two most likely presidential candidates, is public knowledge. Jacques Delors, the EC Commission President and a possible rival to Mr Rocard, is said to hold a similar place in his heart. One option for the President, who has always thrived on adversity, might be to seek to advance the careers of other alternatives, from left or right, and almost certainly from the younger generation, to stop his foes.

(Photograph omitted)