Ever since World War II it has been taken for granted that in any French election the Communists would get roughly 20 to 25 percent of the vote. That assumption was eroded in recent elections. And this month, when France completed its complex series of elections, the Communists went down to a disastrous (for them) 15 percent. That translated into a mere 44 seats in the National Assembly of 491 seats. They had 86 seats before the votes were counted.
True, they have been given a consolation prize of four seats in the Socialists' 44-member Cabinet. But at the cost of swallowing virtually all the Socialists' policies and exerting minimal real influence.
Partly the French Communists have themselves to blame. They ran a strident and at times physically violent antiforeigner campaign. They bulldozed immigrant workers' hostels. It backfired against them.
Partly they suffered for the sins of Moscow, which they had refused to disavow. They had supported the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. They had declined to denounce the deployment of the new Soviet middle-range SS-20 missiles in Europe. They had refused to join in disapproval of Soviet threats to Poland. They came into the elections as the most pro-Soviet Communist Party in free Europe.
Plainly, it is no longer popular in Western Europe for a party to be pro-Soviet. Moscow's behavior has become an albatross around the nect of any Communist Party. Those that have taken their first cautious steps down the Eurocommunism road do better. Those that had disapproved outright of such Soviet sins as the invasion of Afghanistan do best.
Will there soon be another Moscow sin to drag down the Communist parties of the outside world?
In Poland the defiance of Moscow is no longer limited to the Roman Catholic Church, the industrial workers, and the farmers. It now includes the Polish Communist Party itself. That party has received messages from Moscow that, in effect, require it to abandon its own internal reform movement and revert to being a hard-line instrument of repression of the Polish people for Moscow's purposes.
If the French Communist Party had one-tenth of the courage and independence of the Polish Communist Party, the French Communists would probably have done a great deal better in the French elections. The Polish Party has followed the Catholic Church, the workers, and the farmers into identification with Polish nationalism. It is turning into a Polish party, concerned first and foremost with the welfare of the Polish people.
But Poland is also saddled with enormous debts that it can no longer even pay the interest on. Western manufacturers and bankers are understandably reluctant to advance more funds or goods to a country that might not even be in independent existence a month from now.
Conceivably this is itself one reason Moscow has not yet taken decisive control over Poland. If it did, it would not only acquire the debt, but also find itself having to do something about reviving Poland's bankrupt economy. Poland is beginning to run out of everything. As matters stand now, there will be severe shortages of both food and fuel next winter. Poland has not been paying its own way.
Another reason must be the damage that still another intervention by Soviet armed forces would have on Soviet prestige around the world. No one has forgotten Afghanistan.
Perhaps still another reason for Soviet hesitation about Poland is to be found in the unsettled shape of affairs in the Middle East. The overthrow of President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr in Iran opens up new uncertainties.
How long can the newly triumphant party of the fanatical mullahs govern Iran? It's up to them now. The well- intentioned, comparatively moderate former president denied full power and full control to the mullahs. Now the power is theirs.
Experts differ about the probabilities. One is that the new strong man, Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, who leads the ruling Islamic Republican Party, will turn into an effective head of government.
But the alternate possibility is that religious fanaticism will make it harder, not easier, to solve the problems. If that proves to be the case -- Moscow will presumably want to be a ready to take advantage of the opportunity to play a major role in Iran.
And we may be sure that the Kremlin is keeping a sharp watch on events in Lebanon, and between Lebanon and Syria.
In theory at least Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is still threatening to use force to get rid of the Syrian missiles mounted in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. But reports over recent days seemed to indicate that his sense of urgency about the Syrian missiles has declined since his successful attack on the experimental Iraqi nuclear reactor at Tamuz.
No one has declared the Syrian missile crisis over, but the atmosphere of crisis has declined. There has been relatively little shooting and mayhem on the various fronts in Lebanon since the raid on Iraq. It is almost as though all concerned realized that matters were getting out of hand and it was time to pull in horns a little.
Besides, the Reagan administration in Washington had sent a signal of sorts to Mr. Begin by having its UN delegate vote for condemnation of the Israeli raid on Iraq.
It was carefully pointed out that there was to be no "punishment" of Israel. But there was that vote of censure. And the American chief delegate, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, was seen in frequent and friendly discussions with Iraq's Foreign Minister, Saadun Hamadi, during the shaping of the resolution.
The US and Iraq do not have embassies in each other's capitals. Yet at the UN the US ambassador and the Iraqi foreign minister were in conspicuously friendly association. Israel could not fail to notice that its enemy, and the victim of its bombs, was not being regarded as an enemy by President Reagan's UN ambassador.
Israel and its friends in the US welcomed the departure of President Carter from Washington. It was their theory that Mr. Reagan would be friendlier to Israel.
But it is also interesting to know that the Arabs watched the transition from Carter to Reagan with a quiet assumption that in the end Mr. Reagan would see things their way just as often as Mr. Carter did, if not more so. Were the Arabs perhaps more prescient about thei r prospects under the Reagan administration?