Adjustment on the mark

IN the end, it was a political question between the French and the Germans, and this time, the Germans yielded. Under an accord on realignment of the European Monetary System, France will not devalue the franc. Instead, West Germany will revalue the mark, by 3 percent. This was the correct course.

Concern over the weakness of the franc against the mark boiled up into a full-scale international financial crisis last week. Under the EMS, central banks are required to keep exchange rates within certain ``bands.'' Should a certain currency value become insupportable, as that of the franc did last week, rates must be realigned. Officials met over the weekend to work out such a realignment.

But the French, who are better than any other people we can think of at keeping straight faces while insisting, ``They're all out of step but us,'' refused to devalue the franc. They had been saying all along that this was a mark problem, not a franc problem.

They were at least partly right. Although a falling dollar tends to push up the eight EMS currencies, it pushes the mark much higher than other currencies.

But the franc has also been hurt by speculators concerned about the current domestic upheavals within France: the rail and utility strikes, the public demonstrations, and the like. The economic policies of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's conservative government are in the main not bad policies, and they are not much different from what any other likely government would do.

But as Raymond Barre, a former right-of-center premier and a likely Chirac opponent in a run for the presidency, has noted, the current government has been trying to change things too quickly, and with too little reliance on the art of persuasion. Indeed, there is widespread public desire to see cohabitation - the power-sharing arrangement between Chirac and Socialist President Mitterrand - succeed, if only because this is what France has for the moment.

But France is not exactly in the midst of an Era of Good Feeling, either. Joblessness is high, and a large number of young French people remain anxious about their futures - as was evidenced by the protests against the government's ``university reform'' proposals.

The social consensus needs careful tending, not rigorous testing. Episodes like that of the university reforms seem to illustrate a tendency toward undue and unhelpful polarization and a desire to put ideology above harmonious government.

The situation in Germany is more stable. Bonn had resisted revaluing the mark: A more expensive mark dampens German exports, and a good many export-industry workers will be voting in federal elections two Sundays hence. But Helmut Kohl's conservative government is likely to win by a comfortable margin, certainly if the Gnome Index is any indication: Of a series of plastic garden gnomes representing various political figures, the Kohl gnome is said to be outselling, 7 to 1, the one modeled on the Social Democrats' candidate, Johannes Rau.

And so in the franc-mark squeeze, the adjustment was made by the partner best able to take the impact. Chirac and Co. would do well to try to imitate on the national front this instance of accommodation on the international front.

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