France's vote for change

The people of France have dotted the "i's" and crossed the "t" in the word socialist. If there was any lingering doubt they were ready for a political change, the sweeping majority they gave the Socialist Party in the final round of legislative elections for the National Assembly has dispelled it. President Mitterrand now has an unequivical mandate to govern and, if he so elects, to reshape the texture and direction of French society after more than two decades of conservative rule.

However, this is not to say that onlookers know precisely why the French people desired change or whether they in fact want ta heavy dose of socialism. There is unhappiness with inflation and unemployment, to be sure, and the imbalance between rich and poor in France is greater than in many other West European nations. That may be the engine driving the political turnover. Yet popular dissatisfaction did not erupt in labor unrest or similar manifestations. It is possible that the emergence of the Socialists has more to do with popular disenchantment with the autocratic style of leadership of the previous Giscard government than with an ideological preference for the left.

Be that as it may, it is thought unlikely that Mr. Mitterrand will move precipitately in carrying out such socialist reforms as further nationalization of major banks and industry. He is expected to follow through on some measures already in the works -- increasing the minimum wage, creating 50,000 more jobs in the public sector, and revising the tax structure to hit harder at the wealthy. But indications so far are that the Socialist government intends to pursue a go-slow policy, keeping within the context of what the French economy and the Western economies intermeshed with it will bear.

In foreign affairs, little basic change in French policy is yet evident on the horizon. Despite ideological differences, for instance, American and French officials hit it off well during foreign Minister Claude Cheysson's recent visit to Washington. President Mitterrand is staunchly anti-Soviet and will no doubt continue France's close association with NATO. That is reassuring to the Atlantic allies, including the United States.

Yet the emergence of a leftist government in Paris clearly introduces a period of uncertainty displomatically as well as domestically. Previously, President Giscard d'Estaing and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt were the bellwethers for economic decisions and planning in Europe. Now, however, no one knows how Mr. Mitterrand will proceed either within the European Community or on such major issues as the Middle East, where he has already suggested that France has been too pro-Arab. One large area of difference with the US, for example, is the third world. Unlike President Reagan, Mr. Mitterrand is sympathetic to leftist revolutions in Latin America, and other developing regions and does not believe in viewing third-world problems solely in East-West context.

Francois Mitterrand, in short, so far gives every sign of proceeding cautiously as he seeks to transform France economically and socially. That -- plus the fact that the French Communists have lost ground -- should help assuage concern among France's friends abroad about too sharp and destabilizing a turn leftward. But it remains to be seen what Mr. Mitterrand thinks the people of France are saying by their mandate and how he will respond in the years ahead. The only sure observation now is that a new French era is about to begin.

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