Do France's Socialists Have A Prayer Of Hanging On To The Elysee?

The 14-year reign of Western Europe's longest-ruling postwar leader, French President Franois Mitterrand, is reaching its end. Socialist Mitterrand, who turns 78 in October, is fighting a tough battle against prostate cancer, and he might have to quit even before his term ends next May. Mitterrand has contributed to the fin-de-regime atmosphere by brooding publicly about his mortality and slyly maneuvering to influence the succession.

If Mitterrand should exit this fall, early elections would favor Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. In the polls, this moderate, unflappable technocrat is far ahead of his fellow Gaullist, former Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. Balladur's advantage may be greatly reduced, however, if Mitterrand manages to hang on until the scheduled vote in April.

Whenever he goes, Mitterrand's departure may well end the Socialist era in France. He has already hurt his own party badly by admitting his involvement with pro-Nazi leaders of the World War II Vichy regime. And last summer, Mitterrand's encouraging rivals in the European Parliament vote destroyed the chances of the party's preferred presidential candidate, Michel Rocard.

WAVE OF SCANDALS. The Socialists' slim hopes now rest on European Commission head Jacques Delors, who is being coy about whether he'll even seek the French presidency. Delors looks good in the polls now, trailing Balladur by only 14%--and ahead of Chirac. But there are doubts about whether this sometimes brittle official has the grit for what promises to be a nasty campaign. His overly ambitious leadership in Brussels would undoubtedly come under attack.

Still, it's striking that any Socialist could even hope to succeed Mitterrand, given the party's deep scars from recession and a wave of scandals. But the scandals, whose emergence at this stage in the political cycle is not coincidental, are tainting the right as well. In the latest probe, Industry Minister Gerard Longuet is suspected of using influence to build a Saint-Tropez villa on the cheap.

Although ill, the wily Mitterrand is still managing to hurt the right. By staying on cordial terms with Balladur, he has encouraged the Prime Minister's presidential ambitions. That is setting up a damaging fight between Balladur and his onetime patron, Chirac. While Balladur is more popular, Chirac has a big advantage in funding and organization.

BUDGET BUSTER? Mitterrand is also building up former centrist Prime Minister Raymond Barre, whose entry as an independent candidate could further split the right. And the President is taking the lead in trying to recruit Delors--even though the two men were known to dislike each other during Delors' term as Finance Minister from 1981 to 1984.

Even if Delors wins, he won't bring back the big-spending, state-capitalist France that Mitterrand once stood for. As in mther countries, the financial markets call most of the political tunes in today's France. Delors would likely stick to Balladur's recipe of a strong franc and tight budgets.

Balladur has done a commendable job of selling such policies as necessary to make France competitive. Analysts worried that Balladur might spend heavily this fall to cut France's 12.6% unemployment and win votes, but his new 1995 budget features the biggest deficit cut in 30 years.

Strangely, the markets are more concerned about the right-leaning Chirac, who might put growth and job-creation above a strong currency--as some French business leaders urge. But if there is a threat to the business climate, it lies more in the muck the campaign will stir up than in the candidates' policies.

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