Jean-Pierre Chevenement takes firm hold of French economic reins

Jean-Pierre Chevenement didn't make headlines on his visit to the United States which ended this week. But Americans should take notice of the Socialist minister of research and industry.

More than anybody else, Mr. Chevenement has set the hard-line tone of the French response to American sanctions on the Soviet gas pipeline. More than anybody else, too, Mr. Chevenement is directing the Socialists' economic gamble from his ministry post to turn France into a high technology power by galvanizing its newly enlarged state sector.

Most important, Mr. Chevenement is clearly being groomed for even bigger things. By giving him such a high profile, President Francois Mitterrand has made Mr. Chevenement the odds-on choice to become France's next prime minister.

Before the Socialists came to power, such predictions for Mr. Chevenement would have sounded ridiculous. As the head of the far-left faction in the Socialist Party, he was regarded as the wild man, the Tony Benn, of the French left.

In his ''lefty'' corduroys, Mr. Chevenement would rail against ''American imperialism'' and espouse his other neo-Marxist views. To shock visitors, he even used to hang a portrait of Karl Marx in his parliamentary office.

Today Mr. Chevenement occupies an elegant, regal office. His attire of snappy , three-piece suits makes him perhaps the best dresser in the Cabinet. And now he preaches moderation.

Just before leaving for Washington, Mr. Chevenement said he hoped to assure the Reagan administration and US businessmen that the Socialists were firmly committed to austerity. He also said he hoped his trip would lead to increased cooperation between French and US industry and research groups.

''There are so many technical and scientific areas we can cooperate in,'' he said.

But Mr. Chevenement talks in almost Gaullist terms about keeping France independent when the conversation moves to the pipeline issue. He offered little hope that the issue would be soon resolved.

''I don't see any quick way out of the dispute,'' he said, explaining that the US cannot infringe upon French sovereignty or order France around. ''It's the Americans, not us, who should give in.''

Mr. Chevenement himself ordered the American subsidiary, Dresser France, to defy the Reagan embargo and deliver parts crucial to the pipeline's completion.

On the domestic front, Mr. Chevenement's role has been less controversial and contentious. But it still has been dramatic.

As minister of research, he is directing a massive expansion of French research designed to make France the world's third technological power. Again, this shows a strong nationalistic element in his thinking as he talks about the need for France to develop independent technology and to combat American industrial domination.

Mr. Chevenement has not become a right-wing nationalist, however. Since adding the portfolio of the Ministry of Industry in June, he has moved to put the state more in control of French industrial development. While other ministerial budgets were being slashed, he succeeded in receiving an extra 7.5 billion francs ($1.25 billion) for investment in the country's nationalized groups.

Mr. Chevenement's strategy of government-directed industrial renewal has undoubtedly caught Mr. Mitterrand's fancy. But Mr. Chevenement's power in the administration is also a reflection of the large amount of political aid he has given the president.

At the Socialist convention in 1980, Mr. Mitterrand faced a stiff challenge from the moderate Michel Rocard for the nomination. Mr. Chevenement's support behind Mr. Mitterrand clinched the nomination.

Still, before he can rise further in French politics, all Mr. Chevenement has to do is build an electoral base outside the narrow confines of his party.

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