Leading Article: The frustration in France

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The Independent Online
SOMETHING fairly deep is happening in France when people start questioning whether it was right to execute Louis XVI in 1793. The revolution has provided the basic national myth for 200 years. Coupled with fear of Germany, it has been largely unquestioned. Now 49 per cent of those questioned tell pollsters that the execution was a 'grave error', while Germany basks in a period of uncritical approval, leaving Britain to bear the brunt of French resentment.

In the parliamentary election campaign that is now getting under way towards polling on 21 March, these issues will not make the headlines. Indeed, they may be scarcely discussed at all. But their rumblings reflect shifts in the subsoil as France tries to redefine its historical identity and its place in Europe. Throughout the Cold War, France dreamt of a Franco-German alliance that would lead Europe away from dependence on the United States. That dream was always unreal but is now shattered. Even the French can see that it no longer fits the larger and more complex Europe that is emerging from the Cold War, nor any imaginable relationship with the powerful state that united Germany will eventually become.

France's confusion was reflected in the very narrow margin of support for the Maastricht treaty in last year's referendum. Its anger is expressed in bitter hostility to Britain, which is accused of stealing jobs from France, threatening French farmers, undermining the franc and other offences. The country's frustration will be further expressed on polling day by a massive rejection of the Socialists, who could lose as many as 200 of their 270 seats in parliament.

The centre-right parties will enjoy massive gains, not because they are popular but because the Socialists are not. The green parties could even, by a narrow margin, overtake the Socialists since they have achieved a formidable alliance and seat-sharing arrangement. The National Front, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, which had expected to gain up to 20 per cent of the vote, will now be lucky to get 12 per cent. This is not because its nationalist themes have lost their appeal, but because they have been taken up by more respectable politicians. Mr Le Pen has been left with less popular positions, such as opposition to French participation in humanitarian missions to Bosnia.

The election will, therefore, produce a radically changed political landscape but little immediate hope of resolving underlying problems. The conservatives will be fielding a new generation of leading figures in their forties who will have to make some kind of arrangement with an elderly, ailing Socialist president who shows no signs of leaving voluntarily before his term is up in 1995. Cohabitation will not be comfortable.

Meanwhile, the rest of Europe will watch for the effect on relations with Germany. At the moment, any criticism of the troubled neighbour is politically incorrect in France. Whether this restraint can last is open to question. The strain of the high interest rates (about 12 per cent) that are necessary to protect the franc is acute. Decoupling from the mark, already proposed by some politicians, could become a more tempting option or simply unavoidable. The more stubbornly Germany defends its national interest, the more likely others are to follow suit.