Is there any French left left? Today, the French will vote in a new conservative majority in the National Assembly. The president will have to appoint a new prime minister and a new government from the rightist coalition and, as President Francois Mitterrand's mandate runs until l988, France will experience for the first time in 24 years a situation of conflict and coexistence between a Socialist president and a conservative government backed by a strong parliamentary majority.
This would be a banal situation in the United States, where the White House and Congress are used to disagreeing with each other. But in the straitjacket of Gen. Charles de Gaulle's Fifth Republic constitution, requiring a direct election of the president every seven years and a parliamentary election every five, the National Assembly has always been of the same coalition as the president.
This was the state of affairs in 1981 when Mitterrand, immediately after being elected president, called a new parliamentary election. It brought him an overwhelming Socialist majority from which he formed a Communist- Socialist government. As France is strongly polarized, Socialists and Communists on one side and conservatives and extreme right on the other, the system has worked satisfactorily so far.
But the policy conducted by Mitterrand and his two successive Socialist governments has produced deep discontent and dissent among the French public, which now has its first electoral chance in five years to move the political structure dramatically to the right.
Polls indicate a 55 percent margin for the rightist bloc, a meager 30 percent for Mitterrand's Socialists and less than 10 percent for the Communists.
In introducing last year a new mode of voting -- proportional representation instead of the winner-take-all two-ballot system -- Mitterrand was trying to blur the consequences of the shift of French opinion to the right. Even so, the parliamentary right coalition of Jacques Chirac's Rally for the Republic and Valery Giscard d'Estaing's Union for French Democracy is practically sure to gain a majority of seats in the Assembly, without having to make an alliance with the extreme right National Front, which is chaired by Jean-Marie Le Pen.
In his attempt to discredit the right, Mitterrand has relentlessly boosted the National Front, giving its leader public exposure three times on television. The new proportional representation system grants Le Pen parliamentary legitimacy for the first time.
But the president's calculation is likely to be nullified by the discipline of conservative voters. They want a clear change toward lower taxes, more clarity in defense and security issues, a strengthening of the Atlantic Alliance, and the encouragement of private enterprise in order to create new jobs and to fight high (three million) unemployment.
Since 1984, the Socialists, aware of the anger their doctrinaire leftist policy was stirring, have attempted a dramatic U-turn. Under Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, they have made a commitment to free enterprise.
But this has sounded like lip service in a country that they have submitted to an overwhelming degree of state control by nationalizing a pack of industries and the whole of the banking system. Recently, in creating four additional television channels, they confirmed the state's heavy grip on broadcast communications.
A clear majority still holds a grudge against Mitterrand for having attempted to suppress a major form of freedom in France: the right to choose between public and private -- that is, confessional -- education for children. A demonstration that put 4 million people into the streets against the Mitterrand policy on June 24, 1984, still haunts the popular memory.
These issues, however, have not been much debated in the campaign. It is as if the right, eager to "cohabitate" with a Socialist president, were taking a low profile. Only Chirac, a likely future prime minister, has carried to the voters the principles for which he believes they must fight socialism: unemployment, economic decay and heavy foreign and domestic debt, Mitterrand's encouragement of the secession of New Caledonia and the foreign secretary's complacency toward international terrorism.
Some matters of consensus will remain as untouched ground, especially the commitment to the Atlantic Alliance. But this should not conceal that the election will be widely regarded as a referendum on Mitterrand. No one is grateful to him for having put four Communist ministers in office and having let 3 million people remain unemployed. His equivocation toward Third World Marxist powers is also an issue.
The political campaign has been dull, owing to a poor focus on the issues and the reluctance of the right to attack a president with which it knows it must "cohabitate" after the election. Still, Mitterrand could wake up on tomorrow morning and discover a moment of clarity that does not allow further space for dissembling and ambiguity.