Leading Article: Victory for an uneasy alliance

THE defeat of France's governing Socialist Party, long predicted, was clinched by yesterday's first-round election results. The Socialists have been as comprehensively thrashed as expected. The poor showing of the Ecologists is the sole surprise. President Mitterrand's party had been hopelessly compromised by its association with rising unemployment, expected shortly to top three million, and with numerous allegations of corruption. But Mr Mitterrand is expected to soldier on for the remaining two years of his term, thus inaugurating France's second bout of 'cohabitation' between a president of the left and a government of the right.

Clear-cut though the first-round results seem to be, the French are not to be envied for having so spectacularly thrown out an unpopular government. The precise strength of the two parties of the victorious coalition, the neo-Gaullist RPR led by Jacques Chirac and Valery Giscard d'Estaing's more centrist UDF - and with it the identity of the next prime minister and cabinet - will not be known until after the second round next Sunday. One thing is certain, however: the tedious rivalry between Mr Chirac, prime minister in the previous spell of cohabitation in 1986-88, and the former President Giscard d'Estaing, and their respective coalition parties will continue.

President Mitterrand exploited it effectively to win a second term as president in 1988. Wily player that he is, he will not be slow to do so again. Both party leaders have their eyes on the presidential election of 1995. So do younger men within their parties. The electorate, already fed up with their manoeuvrings might yet express its disgust by voting for a centre-left president: that at any rate is the calculation of Michel Rocard, the former Socialist prime minister who last week called for a new 'big bang' coalition of Socialists, ecologists and reform-minded communists.

Meanwhile both the RPR and the UDF will try to pass to each other, or back to President Mitterrand and the previous government, the odium associated with a gathering recession. This is not likely either to be as deep or to cause as much personal trauma as Britain's, not least because mortgages are rarer and mainly on fixed interest rates. But with unemployment already nudging three million and agriculture destined to shed many thousands more jobs, social tensions could rise again. This vulnerability threatens to make France an uncomfortable partner within the European Community. If Britain's economic recovery gathers pace, and if John Major succeeds in bringing his own anti-Maastricht rebels to heel, the new French government might find itself less prone to patronise this country than during the election campaign.