Leading Article: The Elysee and the fin de siecle

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THE MITTERRAND era is drawing, none too gracefully, to a close. It will be remembered for its monumental public works, its peculiar sense of grandeur abroad and its contradictory melange of scandal and suicide at home. Francois Mitterrand's tenure of the Elysee will continue to interest historians of foreign policy, and satirists may depict the intrigues of his republican court with ceaseless skill. But it is now time for France to look ahead: to consider the choices facing the next president, who will lead the nation to the next century.

The European elections completed the decline of President Mitterrand's Socialist Party into the oblivion reserved for ruling parties all over Europe. Some believe that only Jacques Delors can reinvigorate it upon his return from Brussels. Others look to Michel Rocard, though he seems a long shot after his resignation yesterday as party leader. There is talk that Mr Delors' daughter, the former Minister of Labour Martine Aubry, could stand. And there is the flamboyant Bernard Tapie in the wings.

The Right appears fractured between the seething ambition of Jacques Chirac, the regal airs of Valery Giscard D'Estaing, a clutch of red-blooded Gaullists and the bloodless figure of Edouard Balladur, the present Prime Minister. Mr Balladur appears in front, yet at times he more resembles a finance minister under the monarchy than a successor to the throne of General de Gaulle. President Mitterrand took great decisions about war and peace with equanimity and solemn purpose. It is easier to see Mr Balladur in the calm company of central bankers, where all disequilibrium eventually seeks a balance, than in a council of war where the choices may be brutal and finite.

The next president will face two challenges. The public has shown itself tired of the autocratic band of civil servants and politicians who have found intellectual brilliance no answer to structural unemployment, changing patterns in world trade and economic upheaval in society. Corruption and arrogance have sapped its energy. A fresh way must be found to renew the fragile bargain struck at intervals in French history between the governing class and the taxpayer.

The second challenge is to reinterpret the role of France in Europe and the world. Traditional French assumptions about the development of the European Union no longer necessarily apply. A President Delors might be tempted to pursue ideals already beyond redemption. A President Balladur might lack inspiration at all. Beyond Europe stretches a grumbling world in which France - a nuclear power, the only serious military nation on the continent of western Europe, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council - is called upon to play her part. A collapse in Algeria, for example, could threaten France with dramatic effects financially, provoke mass immigration, sow unrest at home and raise the issue of France's security in the Mediterranean. The next tenant of the Elysee must be made to the measure of this great office.