The Gaullist and centrist coalition that has ruled France for 19 years today suffered the most wide-ranging political defeat ever inflicted on it as Socialist and Communist candidates took control of two-third of France's largest cities.
Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac salvaged the Paris City Hall for the parliamentary majority that supports President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Chirac won enough seats on the City Council to insure his formal election next week as the first mayor of Paris in 105 years.
Even the coalition Paris victory was tarnished. Beaten by the leftists in their bid for City Council seats in two key sectors, Giscard's supporters supporters angrily charged that Chirac had not lived up to promises to help the president's forces here.
The leftist alliance formed by the Socialist and Communist Parties gathered 52 per cent of all votes cast in today's runoff balloting of nationwide municipal elections. With a few results still to be decided, the leftist parties now control 150 of France's 221 largest cities.
As the new leftist surge - even stronger than that of the last Sunday's first-round voting - became clear, Gaullist and centrist leaders warned that their coalition could go down to defeat in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 1978 unless the divisions in their ranks that surfaced [WORD ILLEGIBLE] clearly today are ended.
Chirac emerged at the head of a restructured Gaullist party that appears capable of holding a 35 to 40 per cent conservative share of the electorate but not of expanding that nucleus. Today's returns were an even more serious setback for Giscard's efforts to attract moderate Socialists away from the leftist alliance.
Four of Giscard's Cabinet ministers were beaten and one other [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to a narrow victory in contests that are usually decided on personalities or local issues. Today balloting, however, clearly carried national political significance in a country increasingly divided into two ideologically hostile blocs.
Continuing to reflect his disapproval of Giscard's gradualist reform program, Chirac told radio interviewers that the coalition, "which lost the battle of the municipal elections today," had to switch to "an offensive strategy" to confront "the collectivist challenge to our society."
Commuist mayors will take over in St. Etienne, where centrist minister Michel Durafour was ousted, and in Beziers, lost by Minister of Commerce Pierre Brousse. Tourism Minister Jacques Medecin barely won reelection in Nice - considered a safe town for the majority - and Post and Telephone Minster Minister Norbert Segard failed to win Lille.
Perhaps in bitterest defeat for Giscard came in Paris, where the president's chosen candidate for mayor, Industry Minister Michael d'Ornano, failed to win a seat on the City Council.
D'Ornano's ticket was beaten in the city's 18th arrondissement by the leftist coalition, and he immediately charged that Chirac's supporters "did not give us their votes." Chirac agreed last week to support d'Ornano in the six districts in which his tickets finished ahead in the first round, in return for d'Ornano's help in the 11 district that Chirac led.
The left also won a surprise victory in another central-city district, in which Jacques Dominati, one of Giscard's closest collaborators in the Independent Republic party, was running.
Overall, Chirac and d'Ornano carried 54 per cent of the vote in Paris.
Chirac is assured of 52 votes on the 109-member Paris City Council. D'Ornano captured only 17, and the left holds 40.
In Paris and nationally, voters who supported ecologist candidates or tickets supporting former Foreign Minister Michel Jobert appeared to have swung the majority of their voters to the leftist alliance, which gained 5 percentage points over its showing of last Sunday in towns of all population categories.
Equally significant was a 3 per cent fall in the number of votes collected by the Gaullist-Giscardian coalition, a figure that supported d'Ornando's suggestion of a damaging failure of the coalition's two main factions to support each other in some races.
Working together in single lists candidates in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of the 221 [WORD ILLEGIBLE] cities, Socialist and Communist candidates captured an additional 26 big city halls in the balloting today. Added to the 33 towns taken from the majority last week and the city halls they successfully defended, the Socialists now have 82 big-city mayors and the Communists 70.
Falling to the left today were Macon, the capital of the Beaujolais wine district, Angouleme the largest town in the cognac-producing region, Rennes, the capital of Brittany, Nantes, Belfort and the cathedral towns of Bourges and Albi.
The Socialists came out of the contest in a numerically superior position, but the Communists used the alliance to capture their most significant gains in government structure since the end of World War II.
In contrast to the feuds within the majority coalition, Socialist voters appeared to have dropped their previous inhibitions about voting for Communist candidates in runoffs and provided the margin of victory in St. Etienne, Belziers and elsewhere.
Communist voters were vital to the surprisingly strong Socialist victories in Villeurbanne, just outside lyons, and in Lille, where Pierre Mauroy, the Socialist Partys No. 3 man nationally, turned back a strong challenge from Minister Norbert Segard.
Socialist Mayor Gaston Defferre also had strong Communist support n winning 65 per cent of the vote in Marselles. Another important southern town, Aix-en-Provence, returned Socialist Mayor Felix Ciccolini, by a narrow margin.
The Communists, who previously had been strong at the municipal level only in the Paris region and in parts of the east and south, now are implanted in the country's center and west as well.