French TV: Now for a word from your government . . .
Paris — ''We are desperately trying to join President Mitterrand live in Latche,'' explained the Antenne 2 announcer to French television viewers New Year's Day at noon.
But no picture of the President by the fireside of his country home in southwest France was forthcoming. The crane needed for the direct transmission was inexplicably missing. It would be found only five hours later - on the other side of the country at Nancy being used to prune trees.
By forcing Francois Mitterrand's scheduled live interview to be put off a full day, the foul-up caused a howl of satire about the incompetence of state-run television. It also brought back to the surface the serious basic issue of how much the government has to do with setting the political tone of network news broadcasts.
The Communist Party Tuesday took the opportunity to renew its charges of biased reporting against the party and the Soviet Union. And the Gaullist opposition leader Jacques Chirac gave a press conference at which he said government control of the news was threatening democracy.
Political interference in French television is an old story. The three national networks have always been state-owned. During the 23 years of conservative rule, leftist opposition groups were given little air time and some subjects embarrassing to the government, such as the scandal over the diamonds former Central African Emperor Bokassa gave President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, were never mentioned.
President Mitterrand denounced this partisan use of the air waves during his election campaign and promised to make the networks independent. That promise has not been kept, though, and critics charge that right-wing bias has been replaced with the left-wing bias.
After coming to power, the Socialists replaced each of the three network directors as well as many top news executives. By and large, the new choices were considered professional without too strong a political label, though some had visible relations with the Socialist Party. Communists also entered the newsroom: at Antenne 2, for example, there are now four reporters who are party members.
At the same time, Mr. Mitterrand sponsored a reform, creating a nine-member so-called ''high authority'' which is supposed to monitor program quality independently of official control. He named the respected newscaster Michele Cotta to head it.
But Mrs. Cotta and five of the other nine members of the authority were appointed by the government, leading to the frequent charge that the Socialists continue to control the airwaves. No one believes the old habit whereby officials called anchormen with suggestions remains widespread. Nevertheless, critics say the government presence remains clear.
These critics even include the Communist Party, which is a member of the government coalition. The Communists believe the Socialists are hogging the airwaves to promote themselves while discrediting the party and the Soviet Union.
The conservative opposition is equally upset. Gaullist leader Chirac first complained to the high authority in October about what he called a government-inspired campaign against him in television news.
Both Mr. Chirac and former President Giscard d'Estaing are now proposing a new reform for television that would include an independent commercial network. But the Socialists have ridiculed these proposals, asking why they weren't put into effect when the right was in power.
Mr. Chirac implicitly acknowledged the validity of this criticism in a meeting yesterday with a group of American journalists, saying in half-joking, half-serious fashion, that reforms should be enacted before the conservatives return to power. Afterwards, he said the temptation to control the airwaves might be too great.
Such thinking, even if used humorously, underlines the basic fact that any real independence for the networks probably remains a long way off. Many Socialist militants in fact are openly upset that television news is not more overtly ''engaged'' in winning public opinion over to Socialist policies. As a result, despite reports that Mr. Mitterrand himself is dissatisfied with his attempts to reform television, there is little chance he will end the state monopoly.