Probably the best remembered French political column of recent years is one that started on the front page of the newspaper Le Monde saying, "France is bored." A month later came the May-June 1968 student-worker rebellion in which Charles de Gaulle was nearly overthrown.
In an obvious attempt to warn that the country might again be boring itself into a major political upset by accepting the defeat of President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in the coming elections, the progovernment newsweekly Le Point put on its current cover the headline, "Election: Why France Is Yawning."
With less than three weeks to go before the first round of the two-stage presidential vote here, the magazine was on the newsstands summing up the French president's troubles with a cover picture of Marianne, the female symbol of France, politely covering her mouth to suppress the yawn.
Political yawning is far more harmful to Giscard than to his main rival, Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand, whom the president is expected to face in a runoff May 10 between the two top vote-getters.
It was announced today that 10 candidates have met the stringent requirements to be in the elimination round April 26.Except for the two front-runners and the Gaullist and Communist candidates, most seem to be in the race either to get free television time to advance causes such as environmentalism or to drain votes from one of the main contenders.
The Socialist candidate has the advantage in a low-key campaign not only because the leftists have a tradition of turning out to vote more than the less militant moderates. An undramatic campaign underlines Mitterrand's theme that his victory would not represent social upheaval. On the contrary, he insists, it would defuse social frustration over high unemployment coupled with one of the largest disparities in Europe between high and low incomes.
Despite all the talk of boredom, whose reality is confirmed by the low ratings of political television programs and the poor turnouts for rallies by the major candidates, the Giscard-Mitterrand runoff seems likely to be a photo finish.
Two opinion polls published yesterday by Paris Match and VSD, the weekly picture magazine's main competitor, produced opposite results. Paris Match showed Giscard winning 52 percent to 48. VSD had Mitterrand ahead 52.5 percent to 47.5.
The personnel of the two polling organizations involved were originally together in one outfit, but they split up over whether to help Giscard or Gaullist candidate Jacques Chirac. The pro-Chirac pollsters, who had Mitterrand ultimately winning, gave the Gaullist 19.5 percent, while the pro-Giscard organization credited Chirac with three points less.
The polls themselves may be a chief reason for the boredom. Their results seem too convenient for whoever happens to be reporting them, so few people profess to trust them.
The interior minister announced that his police services would stop their traditional private polling for the government. Rival political groups had gotten into the habit of inventing phony results of police intelligence polls to spread by word of mouth. Skeptical French political observers expressed disbelief, however, that the government would really give up its own source of information.
The outfit polling for Paris Match had its knuckles publicly rapped in February and again in March by the official election polling control commission for questionable and slopply techniques and for arbitrary changes in the results. The commission called the earlier poll "worthless."
So it is no wonder that the French public yawns over all the attention the news media pay to the polls. Now, when a progovernment publication says the race is tight or Mitterrand is ahead, the standard reaction is that it is just part of a governmental drive to get out the moderate vote.
The Giscard campaign is spending a great deal of money trying to whip up enthusiasm -- so far in vain. The efforts include a multimedia triple-screen show for warming up audiences before the president arrives, a moveable crowd of 500 to 1,000 "young Giscardists" (some of whom seem paunchy for the role) to cheer him on, and a special telephone number -- VGE 81-88, corresponding to the years in office he is seeking -- with a daily recorded message from Giscard on a topic such as the environment.
Yet Giscard's messages generally have seemed to leave the public indifferent. His much-heralded seven-point plan against unemployment seemed largely an extension of existing programs and vulnerable to the irony of his adversaries who ask why he had not bothered to come up with a coherent jobs strategy during his seven years in office.
Giscard reportedly has been testy with his chief campaign workers, calling them to task for lack of imagination and combativeness. Former interior minister Michel Poniatowski, ostentatiously sidelined for a tendency to turn Giscard's private comments into embarrassing public remarks and because of troublesome questions about events while he was a minister, has been officially brought into the campaign to give it some punch.Those who had been in charge are unsparingly unkind about each other, and the future political ambitions some were widely assumed to be nurturing for a new Giscard term now seem compromised.
Mitterrand's campaign poster showing the Socialist candidate in a landscape with a country church in the distance and the slogan, "The Tranquil Power," best expresses the soothing message he is trying to get across to the middle-class voters he needs if the Communists call for abstention in the runoff.
The Socialist leader even displays calm by using hostile questions to advantage. "That was not a disagreeable question; it was a sympathetic one," he recently retorted to a reporter whose barbs were obviously unfriendly.
The Communists and Giscardists keep accusing Mitterrand of deliberate vagueness designed to create a disparate voting coalition. He has dealt with that by occasionally taking very specific positions such as a publicized plea against the death penalty, despite a poll showing that three-fourths of the population want it kept. The result was a wave of expressions of admiration, even from foes, for his political courage. Giscard then said no decision would be made about any of the seven persons facing the guillotine until after the election.
Mitterrand justifies his party's call for nationalizing 10 industries by recalling that it was French hero De Gaulle who was responsible for the largest number of nationalizations after World War II, adding that it is not the public takeover of the armaments, pharmaceutical and chemical industries that is going to change French society fundamentally. Besides, Mitterrand says, the 1.2 million jobs involved can be manipulated in the struggle against unemployment.
The Communists keep sniping at Miatterrand. Communist candidate Georges Marchais recently replied to Mitterrand's statement that he would expect to have a honeymoon period to accomplish reforms by recalling that the honeymoon period of the Communist-backed Popular Front government in 1936 was a general strike accompanied by factory sit-ins all over the country. It was widely interpreted as an attempt to help Giscard against Mitterrand by introducing anxiety among the middle class.
The ground floor at Socialist headquarters in Paris is full of of busy-looking people dashing in all directions. But the upper floors seem extraordinarily calm.An explanation came from one of the top strategists: "We've done everything we can really. There is no point having any illusions. Everything depends on what the Communists decide to do."
So far, Gaullist candidate Chirac seems to have done a better job of hurting Giscard than the Communists, whose followers are restless over their leaders' hostility to the Socialists, have done in hurting Mitterrand. That obviously impresses campaign strategists more than the opinion polls. In the Giscard camp, it seems to provoke more nail-bitting than yawning.