Mitterrand's realism on steel

PRESIDENT Francois Mitterrand surely deserves plaudits for the courage and hardheaded realism he has shown in his plans to restructure the troubled French steel industry.

But whether the decision - which involves locking the factory gates at some plants and laying off 25,000 steelworkers - will prove politically acceptable is yet to be determined.

What does seem clear: President Mitterrand has correctly recognized that France's steel industry needs ''downsizing'' and modernizing. Pouring huge amounts of capital into the industry in the form of government subsidies may temporarily prop up jobs. But for an industry that is unprofitable, with excess steelmaking capacity, it makes little sense in the long run. For the same reason the French government has also approved job reductions in the shipbuilding and coal-mining industries.

Mr. Mitterrand insists that the government will go ahead with current plans to modernize French industry, notwithstanding the angry street demonstrations that have rocked his nation in recent days - and despite sharp criticism from the French Communist Party. A number of Communists fill slots in Mr. Mitterrand's own Socialist-led government coalition. Will the government stick to its plans, or be forced to retreat? Stay tuned.

Whatever the outcome, Mr. Mitterrand's gritty realism deserves study far and wide, including within the United States. Propping up declining industries through special government help, such as through subsidies or import quotas, may be politically appealing. But it is not always wise. A better approach, as Mr. Mitterrand points out, is to retrain workers as quickly as possible for jobs in new industries - even while modernizing the remnants of the older industries.

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