France's Communist Party has suddenly found itself thrust into the limelight of democratic responsibility. The appointment of four Communist ministers to France's new Socialist-dominated government not only marks an uncertain political gamble for President Francois Mitterrand, but also signals a precedent that promises to benefit Western Europe's major communist party.
By inviting Communists to participate in a French Cabinet for the first time in 34 years, Mitterrand has in one fell swoop ended the political isolation of the French Communist Party (PCF). The PCF was forced out of Charles de Gaulle's reconstruction government in 1947 because of its unbridled pro-Moscow cold war support.
Although Mitterrand's decision has aroused considerable concern among both France's conservatives and the moderate left, his strategy appears to be as cautious as it is shrewd. Commanding an absolute majority in the National Assembly, Mitterrand obviously does not need the Communists to help push through his economic and social reforms.
But rather than be forced to cope with irritations on two political flanks -- bitter Communists to his left and a frustrated neo- Gaullist and Giscardien minority to his right -- Mitterrand has sought to neutralize the PCF by involving it in his own government.
By doing so, he hopes to:
* Encourage a more moderate attitude in the party.
* Reduce potential labor trouble in the Communist-led trade union movement.
* Pay back his dues to the several million Communists who voted for him during the recent presidential election.
The move would also oblige the Communists to assume responsibility in what is expected to be a difficult economic period in the months ahead. The PCF, which has always maintained that it would never join a "government of crisis," would then find it awkward to recede back into a left-wing opposition.
There is also a general feeling among many Socialists that the PCF will not remain in government for more than a year at most. Despite an agreement with the Socialists to fully support Mitterrand's domestic and foreign policies, the party is still considered to be doctrinaire and pro-Moscow.
At present wracked by internal party dissension between moderates and hard-liners, the PCF is expected to iron out its leadership problems in the months to come. As a result, it could become more assertive and therefore less content to play second fiddle to the Socialists. Were the Communists to walk out, however, Mitterrand would obligingly explain that he had at least made the effort to include them.
"The Communist Party is more or less paralyzed for the moment in its ability to act independently," noted Socialist Philippe Lizop. "It has no choice but to cooperate with Mitterrand. Were it to remain out in the cold, it would only lose complete credibility."
Although France's Communist ministers have been purposely given nonsensitive portfolios such as the ministries of transport and health, their presence has unsettled the United States and several European partners.
French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson and several other moderate ministers are known to have strongly opposed the inclusion of Communists in the new government.In response to American concern voiced by US Vice-President George Bush during his June 24 visit, Cheysson indicated that France had assured the United States that NATO secrets would not fall into the hands of Communist ministers.
Each minister, Cheysson explained, was responsible for the job allocated to him. "The Minister of Transport [the PCF's No. 2 man] does not concern himself with defense matters," he added. "As a result, France's defense posture remains credible."
While Mitterrand's decision to include Communists has ostensibly made them respectable in France, it has also made them respectable elsewhere in Western Europe with major communist parties.
In Italy, for example, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) can count on roughly 30 percent of the country's electorate, but has so far been pointedly excluded from any government. PCI officials say the French decision has given them renewed hope. Ironically the PCI has proved itself more democratic than the PCF. Remaining faithful to the principles of Eurocommunism, PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer immediately condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- a move the PCF has yet to make.
The Spanish Communist Party (PCE) has also welcomed the appointments. Holding less than 10 percent of the Spanish vote, the PCE has little hope to play more than a minor role in any left-wing coalition government. But with Spain's next legislative elections in 1983, the country's Communist and Socialist parties could benefit broadly from the influences of its new socialist neighbor to th e north.