LET'S hear it for the efficiency of the French. They are having a presidential election this year, with the first round of voting April 24, and the campaign hasn't even officially begun yet. After quite some time of hinting he would step down after one seven-year term, President Fran,cois Mitterrand finally appears likely to announce his candidacy for reelection. But even so, he may hold off on an official statement till the end of the month.
It will not be a historic election like the one seven years ago that put him into office as the first Socialist President under the Fifth Republic. Nor will it be like the 1986 elections, when the Socialists lost their parliamentary majority, thus launching France into a new political mode known as cohabitation. With conservatives controlling the Parliament, Mr. Mitterrand had to name a conservative prime minister - he picked Jacques Chirac - even as he retained his own office. It was the first time under the Fifth Republic that the presidency and the Parliament were controlled by opposing parties.
If it sounds like the American system, it should. But it has been a new experience for French politicians, who have historically tended to polarization of left and right rather than consensus-building in the center. The French people, however, have been more centrist than their politicians ever understood, and cohabitation has lasted two years, longer than expected.
There have been strains at times, though, and some rather comic moments when Mitterrand and Mr. Chirac have done a version of ``Me and My Shadow'' at international gatherings, where it was unclear whether the presence of the French head of state or the head of government was demanded. In the crunch, Chirac often ended up looking rather hyperkinetic, while Mitterrand had an opportunity to look statesmanlike.
If Mitterrand does win a second term, he can be expected to dissolve the Parliament right away in the hopes of building a new majority - not the absolute majority he had in 1981, but a working majority including centrist Radicals.
Mitterrand's two announced conservative opponents are Chirac and Raymond Barre. Chirac is an indefatigable campaigner with a fine-tuned political organization. Mr. Barre, unlike the other two not a lifelong politician, has no such organization, and despite his service as prime minister is seen as an ``outsider.''
And the issues in this campaign? Even the experts are hard pressed to say what they are; one may as well speak of the ``issues'' involved in selling one brand of cologne rather than another. It's largely campaign-poster nuance - a tweed jacket here, a polo shirt there.
``Security,'' however, has become an issue, as a result of the spate of terrorist incidents of the last couple of years. Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front, has been charging that the presence of ``foreigners'' in France makes the country less secure. Terrorism is understandably a sensitive issue, but Mr. Le Pen's presence is the most troubling development on the political scene.
The economy is the other major issue, but it's not clear how much room to maneuver a new government will have.
But the President's austere charm has largely won his compatriots over, and the election may well come down to that. For all his intellectualism, his aloofness, Mitterrand is widely referred to as ``Tonton'' - uncle. Unlike anyone since Charles de Gaulle, his right-wing mirror image, he has personified France.