The French electorate has shaken up the political map of Western Europe. It would be convenient to be able to detect an ideological trend behind the defeat of Valery Giscard d'Estaing. But it is far from clear whether French voters dramatically ended 23 years of right and center-right rule because they truly want socialism. Or whether they simply desired a change of leadership and fresh ideas to deal with the unemployment and other economic problems besetting France. All that can be said at the moment is that the solid victory of Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand marks a post-World War II watershed. Needless to say, it will have implications not only for France's internal development but for its relations with the other nations of Western Europe; the United States, and the Soviet bloc.
An early and major concern is that, in order to assemble a legislative majority, Mr. Mitterrand, despite his inclinations, may eventually have to rely on the Communists, perhaps even taking them into the cabinet. Much will depend on the makeup of the new National Assembly after the elections in June. The Communist Party has lost considerable popular support in France and may no longer be in a position to impose its will. But it remains, nonetheless, a powerful organization and has a strong influence in the labor movement. Whatever he does, Mr. Mitterrand will have to deal with it and this could spell problems for his presidency.
Will the new President move to carry out the radical reforms his Socialist Party stands for? Mr. Mitterrand has indicated he will not cause any major social upheavals. Yet he ran on a platform calling for nationalizing the banking, insurance and other key industries, raising wages, creating public-works jobs, and reducing the work week. How such a spendthrift socialist program would do anything but create even worse inflation, bureaucracy, and inefficiency is hard to see. It is one of the ironies of the election, in fact, that the defeated candidate did so much for France economically. During seven years of President Giscard's rule, the economy grew a sturdy 18 percent in real terms -- better than did West Germany's or Britain's. But he was unable to lick , any more than any other Western leader, the twin woes of inflation and unemployment. This, together with his abrasively autocratic manner and detachment from the people, defeated him.
It is the hope of many that mr. Mitterrand will move slowly and cautiously. indeed it is one thing to propound socialist doctrine, and another to hold power and have to cope with political and economic practicalities rather than abstractions. The intellectual Socialist can be credited with building up his party and leading an effective opposition. But, except for some government experience during the Fourth Republic, he has not been tempered by the challenges of public office and will have much to learn about the real world of governing. All of which is not to say that France in the long run may not benefit by this political shakeup and the opportunity for innovative thinking it affords.
On the international front, too, Mr. Mitterrand is an unknown quantity, but certainly his election is no cause for alarm. There are not expected to be any dramatic changes in foreign policy. Mr. Mitterrand supports the Atlantic alliance. He is also far from friendly to the Soviet Union, which is reassuring. The Russians, in fact, who might be expected to welcome a leftist victory in France, nonetheless are probably perplexed. They had built up a good relaionship with President Giscard (as they often have with leaders of the right), Moreover, they cannot count on the French Communists, who are not close to Moscow despite their Stalinist leanings, and whom Mr. mitterrand will seek to keep under control.
The future, in short, is much in question for all parties concerned. It a philosophical sense, the sweeping French change perhaps points to the fact that the old ideologies and formulas of the post-World World II period have lost effectiveness and everyone is probing for something new. This is a period of transition. We see this not only in France but in Britain, the United States, Poland. We may see it next in West Germany. Throughout the industrialized world there are economic and political problems -- born of technological progress and new social challenges -- but the old answers no longer seem adequate.
As France launches forth in quest of new solutions, its friends abroad can only hope it finds them. The experiment will be eagerly watched -- but not without concer n.