Fancy Footwork May Buy Mitterrand A Bit More Time

The surprise is that French voters didn't tire of Francois Mitterrand sooner. France's President now has ruled for more than a decade -- longer than Charles de Gaulle. Like le Grand Charles, Mitterrand seems to grow more aloof and mercurial with age. But only after recession hit France last winter did his approval ratings start to plunge. They have kept on falling since he named Edith Cresson as France's first woman Premier last May to give new sparkle to his Socialist regime. Instead, Cresson's acid style and inability to revive the economy have soured voters. Now, Mitterrand, 75, is trying a new ploy to regain popularity: He's hinting that he may quit before his term ends in 1995.

If that gesture seems like the start of a graceful retreat, it's not. Instead, it is part of a wily strategy to keep France's Socialists in power in the face of their stiffest challenge from the right. But even if Mitterrand succeeds, he probably won't be able to prevent a more centrist government from emerging. A free-market Europe and domestic troubles are tugging France to the right. The chief rivals for Mitterrand's Socialist mantle both are moderates: former Prime Minister Michel Rocard and Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission. Either would privatize some state companies and ease up on dirigiste economic policies.

ANTI-IMMIGRANT FEVER. Mitterrand's gambit is to build goodwill through a constitutional referendum late next year. It would cut the presidential term from seven years to five and expand Parliament's powers. By endorsing this popular idea, favored by most opposition leaders, Mitterrand can pose as a selfless statesman. But typically, he has been coy about whether the new term limit would apply to him.

Whether he quits will probably depend on the political winds of the moment. If they're blowing the Socialists' way, he might step down in early 1993, prompting a presidential ballot alongside parliamentary elections due then. Otherwise, he might try to hang on, waiting for better days.

As of now, the conservatives are coming on strong. Their hottest issue is an anti-immigrant fever -- being fanned for all it's worth by the right's top presidential hopefuls, former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac. The weak economy also helps them. Paris is alive with marching workers, and angry farmers are blocking roads to protest low prices and a feared subsidy cut. The right blames economic woes on state-owned industry, which accounts for 30% of gross national product. It also says that Mitterrand's reticence to privatize is crimping investment, hobbling France in an increasingly open-market Europe.

Polls show the leading candidates to succeed Mitterrand -- the two Socialists, Delors and Rocard, and two conservatives, Chirac and Giscard -- running evenly. But the right is way ahead for the coming parliamentary elections. Seeking help, the Socialists may team with centrist "green" parties, which would pull them to the right. Mitterrand might also replace Cresson with Delors, who could then prepare for a future presidential run.

Of course, Mitterrand has bounced back before. Currently, he's trying to recoup after several gaffes, such as not vigorously opposing the Soviet putsch last August. He scored well at the recent NATO summit, where George Bush approved his goal of a European defense force. And he hopes to bask in next month's European Community summit. But that won't be enough to erase growing doubts about whether Mitterrand is the right French leader for the post-1992 era. The days of his old-style socialism seem numbered.

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