From any objective view, the conservative parties of France won an impressive victory last Sunday in the first round of local elections. Yet, as they maneuver and bargain for the second round, the conservatives are acting more like confused losers than exultant winners.
The conservatives have been unsettled by the relatively strong showing of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his extreme-right, anti-immigration National Front.
Some conservatives want to work out some kind of alliance with him in the second round of voting this Sunday for the general councils of the regional departments of France. But most conservative leaders, with their eyes on the far more significant national legislative elections of next year, do not want their parties tainted by an alliance with the extreme right.
All this has created a mood of conflict and confusion on the right that could last well into next year.
The confusion seems to be enhancing the image of Le Pen. While the regular conservative parties, the Rally for the Republic of former Premier Jacques Chirac and the Union for the French Democracy of former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and another former premier, Raymond Barre, insist that they will have nothing to do with Le Pen, some party officials are obviously making quiet deals with him on the local level.
Le Pen, with a theatrical flourish in midweek, announced that he would withdraw half of his candidates from the second round, saying that he feared their presence would split the rightist vote and let a Communist or Socialist win. This move rewarded the local conservatives who were ready to deal with Le Pen, even while it embarrassed those whose refusal to deal with him will probably allow the election of some leftists in districts where the right should be strong.
The general mood of French voters was set down clearly in the first round and proved a severe blow to the ruling Socialist Party of President Francois Mitterrand. The parties of the right led the parties of the left by 58% to 41% (with another 1% going to environmentalists).
The importance of the second round lies mainly in the maneuvering of the parties and what this reveals about future political alliances in France.
Under the French electoral system, a second round of voting is held in a district if no candidate wins a majority of the vote in the first round. All candidates with more than 10% have the right to take part in the second round, where victory goes to the candidate with the most votes.
To solidify the vote of the left, Socialist and Communist candidates usually withdraw from the second round in favor of the leftist candidate with the highest score in the first round. Candidates for the two regular conservative parties usually do the same for each other.
But, chafing under Socialist charges that they are allied to Le Pen, the leaders of the Rally for the Republic and the Union for the French Democracy have announced that, while their candidates will withdraw in favor of each other, they will not withdraw in favor of a Le Pen candidate.
The vote for Le Pen in last Sunday's first round would probably look small to an outsider. His party took 9% of the national total. But his candidates had run in only three quarters of the cantons, as the French call the electoral districts that elect representatives to the general councils of the French departments.
Le Pen's National Front won the right to go on to the second round in 113 of the more than 2,000 cantons where elections were held,but it will take part in only 54.