The landslide victory of the French Socialists in the first round of legislative elections seems to confirm just how deep is the popular longing for change in France. There could be a sliding off of Socialist support in the second and final round next week. About 30 percent of the eligible electorate did not vote, presumably reflecting apathy among the conservatives. These voters could still make their voice felt in the runoffs. But unless someting unexpected happens it appears that President Mitterrand's Sicialists will win enough seats to control the National Assembly.
Such an outcome is significant for France on two counts. One, it means mr. Mitterrand will not have to seek the support of the Communists in order to govern. The French Communist Party threw its support to Mr. Mitterrand in the May presidential election in hopes of gaining access to government and in effect holding Mr. Mitterrand hostage to cooperation with the Communists. But, fortunately for France, the Communist Party lost ground in this week's elections , winning only 15.5 percent of the vote as against the 20 percent it has normally won over the past decade. The party appears seriously weakened.
This does not mean President Mitterrand will be able to ignore the Communists. The latter control the biggest trade union federation in France and obviously are in a position to make mischief and to exert influence. It cannot be ruled out that, in order to keep peace on the left, Mr. Mitterrand will offer the Communists a couple of noncritical cabinet posts -- provided they meet his conditions of opposition to Soviet actions in Afghanistan and Poland and of support for the Western position on nuclear missiles in Western Europe. In any case, any weakening of the appeal of communism in a democratic West European country is cause for satisfaction.
Secondly, a Socialist victory will give President Mitterrand and working majority he needs in the National Assembly in order to carry out his programs. No elected president of France has ever confronted a parliament dominated by the opposition. Without a majority of his own party in control, Mr. Mitterrand would have to make cause either with the Communists or with the conservatives, and this could frustrate his efforts to remold French society. Without taking ideological positions one way or the other, it can be argued that, having elected a socialist leader, France would do best to give him a chance to lead and to prove his theories. This would be preferable to an immobilized government that could not move in any direction.
Considerable concern exists, of course, about where Mr. Mitterrand will take France after 23 years of conservative rule. His platforms calls for such radical social and economic reforms as decentralization of the government and nationalization of a number of enterprises. But so far all indications are that the French President will proceed cautiously. He has appointed a moderate Socialist and center-left government which includes members respected by both the left and the right. Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy and Finance Minister Jacques Delors have pointedly sought to calm fears of sudden changes. So intertwined are the economies of the industrialized West in fact that France will not be able to act without the cooperation of West Germany and the United States, the two dominant economic powers. This in itself should prove a brake on radicalism.
In any event, France's allies abroad watch this unfolding new chapter in French history with fascination as well as anxiety. French voters, by following through and giving Mr. Mitterrand a workable government, show clearly they are prepared for something n ew.