Although the final results of the March 14 local elections here ended in a near dead heat between the right and left, they are being widely interpreted as a major setback for President Francois Mitterrand and his Socialist Party.
The left, including the ruling Socialists and their Communist and left-wing allies slipped from the 52 percent total Mitterrand recorded last May to 49.52 percent while the right registered 49.92 percent. The rest went to splinter groups.
The voting to choose officials for more than 2,000 seats in departmental assemblies has no immediate effect on the Socialist's hold on power. But the results are significant for three reasons:
* The power of local governments, long dominated by Paris, is to be increased under a new decentralization law which will take effect soon.
* The elections served to promote opposition leaders. Former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, starting a comeback, easily won election as a district representative. So did Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, the leader of the conservative neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic Party.
* Most importantly, the elections were billed as the first national test for Mitterrand and his program of sweeping economic change, with nationalizations being the centerpiece of a major effort to create jobs.
In this sense, the voters clearly did not give Mitterrand his hoped for vote of confidence. The results looked especially bad in light of the left's hefty 56 percent showing in the local elections in 1976, and the Socialists' heavy campaigning for this vote.
The Socialists used the manifest advantages in incumbancy. Recently they cut the price of gasoline for the first time in 17 years, promised the middle-class that they will not be taxed more heavily, and offered the poor government-operated savings accounts linked to inflation.
Still, the Socialists themselves received only about 29 percent of the vote, about the same as in 1976.
This forced even the pro-Socialist daily Le Matin to acknowledge the elections as a setback with its headline, ''Defeat for the left.''
And predictably the opposition was celebrating. The conservative Le Quotidien de Paris exalted in a banner headline, ''The left loses petals,'' referring to what it called the wilting of the Socialists and their symbolic red rose.
The opposition is hoping that the setback will force the Socialists to slow down their ambitious program of social and economic change. ''They know now that the majority opposes their changes,'' said Lydia Gerbaud of Republic Party, ''They must slow down their foolish reforms.''
In fact, the elections might just force Mitterrand to reconsider his alliance with the Communists, and instead attempt to build a center-left constituency.
The poor performance of the Communists could not but encourage the president in his stated goal of ''marginalizing'' his allies.
The Communists got only around 15 percent of the vote, in line with their poor showing in the presidential election last year, and a sharp decrease from the 23 percent they registered in the 1976 local elections.
Mitterrand can now reasonably argue that the electorate is uneasy about the direction of his policies, and that prudence dictates a slower pace of reforms.
In recent months there has been major debate within the government over just this issue.
Moderates such as Finance Minister Jacques Delors have been urging ''a pause'' in the reforms so as not to undermine business confidence.
At the same time, more orthodox Socialists have been complaining that the government has not been moving quickly enough.
So far Mitterrand has refused any pause. No one knows what he will do now.
Much may depend on the second round of local elections, scheduled for March 21 in the areas where no candidate achieved an outright majority of the vote.