Mitterrand's dangerous liaisons

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HOWEVER France's election is analysed, one conclusion is inescapable: Francois Mitterrand has been massively rejected by his citizens. The worst defeat for a governing party under the 35-year- old Fifth Republic has left that party's founder and guiding hand isolated in the Elysee Palace and must surely mean that France is, if only temporarily, moving from a presidential to a parliamentary system.

Whatever constitutional rights he may have, such as naming the new conservative prime minister next week, it is hard to see how the 76-year-old president can impose his views on a government which looks as though it is heading for 80 per cent of the National Assembly's 577 seats. Setting aside the 40 per cent of the votes taken by the right, and the argument that their gains were out of proportion to the actual vote, the 19 per cent taken by the Socialist Party is the real indicator of how the left has fallen.

It is a far cry from that triumphant day in May 1991 when Mr Mitterrand walked through pouring rain to the Pantheon, where France's great are buried, to mark his election to the presidency. This was hailed as the start of a new era, an end to the political sleaziness under which a self- serving class carved up the best jobs among themselves and kept aloof from the people.

Until next Sunday's second round of voting, when the final composition of the new parliament will be decided, conservative leaders can be expected to maintain a discreet silence on their relations with

the president and do nothing to emphasise Mr Mitterrand's humiliation. From then on, however, it will be different. Voices on the right will no doubt call on the president to step down. Constitutionally there is no reason why he should, and he has shown no inclination to do so. Other voices will simply urge him to be cautious and not try to hamper the new government.

Traditionally, the president retains control of foreign affairs and defence regardless of the composition of the rest of the government. This time, however, he may face a struggle to keep control even of these portfolios, despite the fact that one of his titles is chief of armed forces. In principle he can refuse to sign legislation he does not like.

During the first 1986-88 'cohabitation', when the Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac was prime minister and the government had only a five-seat majority, he dangled these prerogatives before his opponents, deftly drawing Mr Chirac into public feuds and then defeating him in the 1988 presidential election. This time it will not be so easy.

As the extent of Sunday's conservative victory became apparent, Pierre Beregovoy, the Prime Minister, and Laurent Fabius, the Socialist Party first secretary, blamed their defeat on unemployment, the recession, the erosion of time and on 'disappointment'. These are all valid reasons.

Into the 'disappointment' category could be put the multitude of scandals that has affected the Socialists over the years, from insider trading and illegal party funding to the tapping of telephones - including that of an actress, the only apparent motive being to discover her personal liaisons. Lately, the 'disappointment' extended to Mr Beregovoy himself when it emerged that a friend of the president who was allegedly involved in insider trading had given Mr Beregovoy an interest-free loan to buy a flat.

Mr Mitterrand also bears a degree of personal blame, but his faults are harder to define. At an election rally last month, a senior official of the conservative RPR said: 'Francois Mitterrand has never been faithful to an idea or a person.' This was wrong. Perhaps one of Mr Mitterrand's greatest failings has been undue loyalty to old friends. Staff at the Elysee Palace are there because they are their fathers' sons, and all sorts of peccadilloes are tolerated among old associates of the president. Possibly his greatest mistake was to appoint Edith Cresson to replace Michel Rocard as prime minister in May 1991. That appointment marks the time his credibility began to decline.

Mrs Cresson had been a respected minister but her blunt approach - she called it 'talking crude', and it was - made her unsuitable to co-ordinate a Cabinet. Within weeks she had alienated many of her ministers and this was quickly obvious. Her popularity fell sharply and so did the president's. Still, Mr Mitterrand kept her on until last April, when Mr Beregovoy took over.

Even one of the President's greatest achievements - the destruction of the Communist Party, which once commanded 25 per cent of voter support - did not bring him the electoral credit he might have hoped for. Forces beyond his control - the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and the demise of Communism elsewhere in Europe - meant that this signal political achievement was forgotten by the voters. By the time of this year's National Assembly elections, it had become irrelevant.

Mr Mitterrand is reported by people with access to him to have complained that the voters' rejection of the Socialist decade is unfair. History, he is said to believe, will judge him and his times otherwise. He may be right, but history does not vote. Even if it did, it might not want him to stay. Time has passed him by and nowhere is that more apparent than in foreign policy. At first, his record was impeccable. Unlike his conservative predecessors, he showed solidarity with Nato as the now long forgotten SS-20/Pershing-2 and cruise missile debate dominated East- West relations in the early Eighties. Not for him the temptations of German-style pacifism. He also made it clear that France's nuclear weapons were pointed at the East and not everywhere - as under de Gaulle.

THE END of the Cold War brought confused signals. As the Berlin Wall fell, he rushed to Kiev to meet Mikhail Gorbachev, trying to head off German unification. In August 1991 he was so soft on the hapless Gennady Yanayev, who led the failed coup against Mr Gorbachev, that it almost looked as though he was more at ease within a Cold War context. In the months that followed, 'he kept pulling rabbits out of the hat. The problem is that all his rabbits had myxomatosis,' said a prominent newspaper editor.

One was constitutional reform, including a proposal to cut the current seven- year presidential mandate to five. This was widely welcomed, especially in the opposition, which suggested he apply it to himself. He stuck to the old system.

Mr Mitterrand is the creator of the modern Socialist Party and nothing can detract from that. He put it together from diverse groups at the beginning of the Seventies. Now, however, he is blamed for its destruction. 'He always put up the wrong people, like Laurent Fabius, the caviare left, people whose views were fashioned in gilded salons,' said a senior Gaullist this month. Others complained that he never promoted people with genuine popular appeal.

There was speculation at the time of the Maastricht treaty referendum last September that Mr Mitterrand, just found to have cancer of the prostate, might bow out of power on a victory. Now, however, he faces two years in which he will at best be seen only as a political wheeler-dealer. In January, a French news magazine asked prominent astrologers for their 1993 predictions. Two said Mr Mitterrand would leave office in May on the fifth anniversary of his 1988 re-election. With the new government promising to press for a five-year mandate early in its tenure, this could be a dignified option.

(Photograph omitted)