"The Majority Beaten?" "Can Majority Still Win the Elections?"
Those were the cover headlines of L'Express and Le Point, the Time and Newsweek of France, two weeks ago. They could have published the same covers at almost any time in the past six months.
With an amazing stability that has defied all the efforts of the political leaders and party apparacuses, public opinion polls have been producing virtually identical results for months. The latest sampling, a Louis Harris poll published over the weekend, showed 51 per cent for the divided left and 45 per cent for the right-wing which now holds a majority in the National Assembly.
A top Gaullist strategist complained that even such results understate the extent of what he sees as the impending disaster.
The pollsters keep giving 3 to 4 percent to the badly fragmented ecological movement. The Gaullist reckons, and independent observers agree, that three quarters of the ecological protest vote will switch to the left in the runoffs and that the other quarter will stay home. A runoff vote is required in any district where no candidate wins a majority.
There seems to be little doubt that the polls are an accurate reflection of how the French now intend to vote in the first round of the elections March 12. But there is still some room to wonder what the outcome will be after the runoff elections a week later.
The two round voting system is peculiarly suited to the electorate in a country where 60 per cent of the Communist voters say children should be baptized in the Roman Catholic church and where a free-enterprise government complains that it really has as much right to the label "socialist" as the Socialist party.
As recently as 1967, French voters gave the left a clear majority in the first round and then, having sent the government a message, turned around and confirmed the governmental majority in power the following Sunday.
The polls on how the French will vote March 19, after what they have taken to calling the "primaries" are based on so many variable, that there is a possibility that the present trends could be reversed.
Every one of the four major parties --the left and the Gaullists and centrists backing President Valery Giscard d'Estaing on the right -- playing a double game of trying to beat its partner-adversary inside its own camp while fighting for the victory of its electoral coalition. So muchso, that there are many observers who wonder out loud whether the Communists and Gaullists at the two extremes would not prefer a defeat in which their parties come out well inside their coalitions to a victory of their respective camps in which their parties do poorly.
The scores of the four parties will be established in the first round on March 12. The relative positions of the four main parties will then play a major part in determining how they negotiate their alliances for the runoffs.
Socialists leader Francois Mitterand said yesterday that he would refuse to negotiate at all with the Communists, insisting simply that the leftist candidates with fewer votes bow out in favor of the top vote getters for the runoff.
In the days when the Communists were still the largest party of the left and the Socialists were eking out 15 to 18 percent of the vote, the Communists generally insisted on "republican discipline," meaning the automatic withdrawal of the trailing candidates.
With the Socialists Party destined to become the most important single party in France, even if the left loses in the second round, the demand for "republican discipline" is now coming from the Socialists. It is a demand that is hard for the Communists to resist because the Socialists have also established a proven record for delivering their own voters in a series of recent countrywide local elections. Before the resurgent Socialists Party regained its confidence under Mitterrand, Socialists voters habitually ignored party recommendation when that meant voting for Communists in the runoffs.
Mitterrand is so confident of the victory of the left that his brain trust is letting it be known that he will not be the prime minister of a triumphant left under Giscard d'Estang but that he will hold himself "in reserve" for the "third round" of the elections --the replacement of Giscard as president.
Giscard, who defeated Mitterrand for the presidency by only 344,399 votes in metropolitan France in 1974, was elected to serve until 1981. But Mitterrand's people are talking about making his tenure with a leftist majority in parliament and a Socialist prime minister so difficult that Giscard would be forced to resign.
Another politician acting as if he were running to replace Giscard rather than merely to lead his followers in the National Assembly is Gaullist party leader Jacques Chirac. He rarely misses an opportunity to suggest that the majority's difficulties are attributable to Giscard's poor grasp of the situation.
The president would not be in trouble. The Gaullists say, if he stopped depicting himself as a model of moderation and turned himself into a fighting disciple of Charles de Gaulle, joining battle against the enemies of French national independence both east and west -- the Soviets and the Americans.
Instead, the Gaullists mutter in private, Giscard projects a "Petainist" image, a reference to the aged marshal who led the country under the German occupation in World War II.
Giscard has answered by quietly fostering a fusion of three moderate parties -- his own Republican Party, the Social Democratic Center of former justice minister Jean Lecanuet and the Radicals led by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber. The Union for French Democracy will try to outpoll the Guallists in the first round.
The president also broke several months' silence about politics to warn that if the left won, he should not be counted on to prevent the promulgation of the Communist-Socialist joint program, including new nationalizations of key companies and a raise in the minimum wage from about $350 monthly to $500 in an economy already beset by inflation and heavy unemployment.
While Giscard's tone was a combative warning that a leftist victory would bring far more fundamental changes than the discontended voters in the center of the political spectrum realize, the effect was actually two-edged: Giscard was also telling Mitterrand that the president would not use his considerable potential to sabotage a new leftist government.
The speech, widely billed as a major statement, had no effect on the polls.
Those likely to be influenced by Giscard's arguments and by such developments as the fall of the franc include the small group of undecided swing voters who tend to be middle-class. The polls show that the undecideds have been splitting along the same lines as other French voters.
Meanwhile, the Communists have been conducting their electoral battles as if what really counts is the party's share of the vote. Communist leader Georges Marchais has even said publicly that if the Communists do not do better than their current consistent 21 percent in the poll, they will not take part in a leftist government. The reaction to that statement was so adverse, even inside the party where unrest has been growing since September over the Communist-Socialist split, that Marchais back-tracked and started talking instead about how many Cabinet ministers the Communist Party would demand.
The Communist leaders have been forced to stand by almost helplessly as the Socialist Party, once largely middle class, has chipped away at their hold on French workers. A Louis Harris poll published yesterday morning showed that 33 percent of the workers intend to vote Socialist, as against 35 percent for the Communists.
At the nationalized Renault automobile plant, one of the bastions of the Communist-led General Labor Confederation, Socialist-allied unions raised their share in shop elections two weeks ago to 40 percent from 33 percent a year ago. The Communist union dropped 10 points from 43 to 33 percent.
Within the left, the Communist seem to be suffering from the same malady as the government, the voters discontent with old leaders.
"Fed up" is the expression that recurs in almost every political conversation, from left to right and from ordinary voter to party leader to explain the behavior of the French electorate; Giscard, who is fundamentally anti Gaullist, is suffering from representing a group that has been in power for 20 years, while Mitterrand, who was a Cabinet member 11 times under the preceding fourth Republic benefit from his appearance as a new man leading a new party.
It is not the only paradox. In a widely respected poll last month, only 43 percent of those questioned said they desired a victory of the left, while 51 percent said they would vote for it.