Reading the runes of the French election

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The Independent Online
The first round of the French parliamentary election reflects perfectly the mood of the country - confused, disaffected and divided.

The electoral landscape of France has become fragmented almost to the degree of political pointillisme. There were more candidates and more small parties than ever. The mainstream parties, left and right, took the smallest share of the vote in recent history. Fewer candidates were elected on the first ballot - just 12 out of 577 - than in any previous two-round election. The turn-out was the lowest for 40 years, except one. There were more than one million spoiled ballot papers.

The results add up to one of those kaleidoscopic, multiple pictures for children, which look quite different, depending on how you tilt them.

View One: It was a great day for the Left, especially the Socialists and their leader Lionel Jospin. Four years after being crushed to a mere fifth of the seats in the National Assembly, the left, including the greens, scored more than 42 per cent of the vote. The Socialists, with 25.5 per cent, became, once again, the biggest single party in France.

View Two: It was an overall victory for the Right. If you include the National Front and several fringe parties, the Right captured 51 per cent of the vote. This could yet translate into an ignominious victory for the centre-right government in the second round on Sunday and spare President Chirac (who called the election nine months early) the embarrassment of five years of awkward cohabitation with the Left.

View Three: Whatever happens this Sunday, it was a shattering humiliation for Prime Minister Alain Juppe and his governing coalition of the traditional right, consisting of the Gaullist RPR and the UDF alliance of small centre- right parties. Their combined score - just over 31 per cent - was their lowest in nearly 40 years since establishment of the Fifth Republic. If you include those who did not vote, or spoiled their papers, less than one in four French people voted to prolong the Government.

View Four: It was a menacing new high watermark for the National Front. The far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-European, anti-American party scored its highest vote - 15 per cent - in any national election. It will probably win no more than two or three seats on Sunday but its voters (not its leaders) hold the fate of the election. And yet ...

View Five: The 1997 election may mark the beginning of the decline of the NF leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. For the first time, the NF score as a party matched the best performance of Le Pen as an individual (in the last presidential election). The campaign was marked by public disagreements between "Le Chef" and his lieutenants, both loyalists and dissidents. The result suggests that the NF can survive without the rumbustious personality of Le Pen. But can it thrive?

It could be argued that the system of two-round elections is designed to accommodate this kind of fragmentation and cussedness and still deliver a clear result on the second weekend. It allows the French electorate to kick the political cat before taking a second, more hard-headed look at the best of the poor choices on offer.

This is the theory. The problem this time is that the overwhelming desire of the French people, as expressed on Sunday, was for change. The oddities and complexities of the electoral system are quite likely to deliver them the opposite - no change.

In a sense, however, the muddled result reflects the muddle in the electorate. France wants change but it is also terrified by change. It wants an end to high unemployment and high taxes. But how? It fears the liberal, Anglo- Saxon route of market-opening, welfare-state shrinking reform. It equally distrusts the swing of the Socialists back towards statist solutions. The majority of French people are vaguely supportive of the European Union and the single currency; but they are also naggingly apprehensive about what EMU will bring.

Perhaps the best comparison is Britain in the 1970s, when voters lurched between the major parties, despairing of both and increasingly seeing little difference between them. The clearest single message of Sunday's vote is that France urgently needs new faces and new ideas.

What now? The system is so complex and the variables so variable that a firm prediction for next weekend is a job for Deep Blue, the computerised chess grandmaster.

Will more, and different, people vote next time? More leftists may join the battle, but the biggest proportion of abstentions were in the centre- right. President Chirac and his supporters will hope to scare them into turning out to stop a left-wing government.

How will the NF voters jump? The key to the whole election will be the 79 seats in which there will be a three-way contest between the centre- right, the left and the National Front. To have a chance of winning, the left probably needed to have more triangular contests - as many as 100 - to split the right-wing vote more effectively. In other seats, where NF candidates have been eliminated, the far-right vote should mostly emigrate to the centre-right government.

Prime Minister Juppe has intervened, with doubtful constitutional propriety, by saying that he will stand down if the centre-right wins on Sunday. Will this bring enough non-voters and NF voters back into the Government camp? President Chirac can be assumed to have pushed Mr Juppe from behind. But the president now faces a dilemma. All the likely alternative prime ministers - parliament president Philippe Seguin, rising UDF force Francois Bayrou, former Prime Minister Edouard Balladur - might use the job to challenge Chirac for the presidency in 2002.

Logic and simple arithmetic suggests that the left should win on Sunday. Past experience suggests the centre-right may scrape home. The problem is that this would give five years in power to a government with no mandate to take painful decisions on behalf of an electorate which would feel - once again - that its democratic will had been cheated. Several commentators have made the comparison with 1967, when the right polled disastrously in the first round and the bourgeoisie poured out in the second round to block the left. The following year, the country was convulsed by student and worker uprisings.

In 1997 and 1998, events for France, in the economy and in the negotiating chamber in Brussels, are likely to turn sharply worse before they turn better. There is little sign of an upturn in job creation. Insistent leaks from within the finance ministry suggest that France will have to take harsh, deflationary measures - spending cuts or tax rises - if it is to meet EMU guidelines this year. An unpopular government forced to make such decisions could bring French politics out of the ballot box and onto the street again.