ONCE AGAIN the voters - the French voters, this time - have confounded pollsters, pundits and, we have to acknowledge, newspapers. By every conventional signal and indication, the parties of the Left were goinf to get a lot more votes than the Center-Right in last Sunday's first round of the parliamentary election. As it turned out, they got somwhat fewer. The precise balance of the next National Assembly will be set in next Sunday's run-off vote. But it hardly seems posibble now that the Left will win a majority and take over the government.
The voters wanted change, but not precisely the kind of change that a doctrinaire Left offered them. The long dispute between the Communists and the Socialists over theigoals no doubt focused the people's attention on the total uncertainty over the lengths to which the Left might go to if it won. It was certainty clear that there would have been a number of nationalizations of companies, massive increases in minimum wages and shorter working hours - all at an obvious cost in inflation. It would have meant great strain within the European COmmunity, the other members of which have no taste whatever for radical experiments at the present.
The precise reasons won't be clear for some time, but it is evident that a crucial number of French voters changed their minds late in the campaign and decided that the risks of this adventure - whatever its appeals - were too great.The results are doubly surprising because of the French traditon of using the first round as an opportunity to ventilate protest. It is customarily in the run-off that the swing to the Right comes.
One large question now is the reaction within the Communist Party. In this election campaign it was making a serious drive toward winning a part in the government. It not only appears to have lost, but moreover it failed too reach the 21 percent of the popular vote that was its immediate target. It is possible that the party leadership will interpret those numbers as evidence that the strategy of building a majority, through alliances of the Left, is a failure. The alternative would be to revert to the party's role as perennial outsider, a minority too big to be ignored, pressed its own causes through its capacity for making trouble.
One of the winners is the man who wasn't running in this election: the president of France, Valery Giscard d'Estaing. In recent weeks he has, with increasing forcefulness, led the campaign to warn the country against the consequences of a victory by the Left. This election is a test, among other things, of the present French constitution with its emphasis on presidential leadership. It looks as though the institution, as well as the man himself, is coming out of this vote stronger than it went in.
Another winner, you could argue, is Enrico Berlinguer, head of the Italian Communist Party. He has said all along that Communists can get into power only by being good bourgeois and frightening nobody. Just as the French election campaign was coming to a climax, the Italian parties strung together a new government - or, more accurately, the old government once again - with the level of Communist participation and support one degree more explicit. The Communists again declined to force their way immediately into the Cabinet; they settled for acknowledgement that they are only half a step from it. If the purpose of politics is to get into power , the Italian Communists's extreme patience and delicacy appear to be succeeding where the French Communists' abrasive demands and general pushiness have been an interesting failure
If the Center-Right parties that now control the French Assembly should win next Sunday, a number of fears will bw put to rest. The French economy won't be thrown into turmoil. The European Community won't be split. The Atlantic alliance won't have to deal with the Communists in the government of a major Western power. But it will be important, amidst the rejoicing, not to lose sight of several truths that the elections have demonstrated.France is a country deeply and narrowly divided across a line that does not admit easy compromises. In the aftermath of this election, the winners are not likely to make any concession to the losers. In the end a great deal depended upon a rather small number of voters, who, at the last minute, apparently120 changed their minds.