AFTER several days of very public hesitation, French President Francois Mitterrand on Thursday named finance minister and longtime confidant Pierre Bgovoy to replace Edith Cresson as prime minister.
The appointment, made in time for Thursday's opening of the spring parliamentary session, follows intense consultations that began Monday between Mr. Mitterrand and virtually all of the major players in the country's battered and divided Socialist Party.
A shake-up in the French government became inevitable after the second round of local elections Sunday, which revealed an electorate snubbing all traditional political parties but particularly the Socialists. Yet while Mitterrand is known for taking his time in making crucial decisions, the hesitancy and reconsiderations over this choice revealed a president dissatisfied with his options.
By naming Mr. Bgovoy, whose tight-fisted administration has given France one of the best economic records in the European Community - although accompanied by record-high unemployment - Mitterrand appears to be signaling his choice of experienced management to pull France out of its current malaise.
The appointment does not please everyone, however, notably within the Socialist Party. Several key Socialists opposed the move as unlikely to give the country the necessary stimulus to restore confidence and improve Socialist prospects, now quite dark, for legislative elections set for spring 1993.
Next year's national elections were indeed the central factor in the deliberations over Mrs. Cresson's replacement - just as they had been less than 10 months ago when Mitterrand dropped Michel Rocard in favor of France's first woman prime minister.
Bgovoy, whose dedication to a low-inflation, tight-purse-string economy is unquestioned, is now seen as the man who can safely fuel some voter-pleasing economic growth without rattling business and financial circles. In his first brief statement as prime minister, Bgovoy cited "the battle against unemployment," which has risen to 10 percent of the work force, as his overriding priority.
It is not at all certain, however, that Bgovoy's government (unnamed as of yesterday afternoon), expected to be heavy on familiar Socialists, will be able to unify a splintered French electorate and preempt the conservative victory polls portend.
A conservative majority in the National Assembly would mean that Mitterrand, if he chose to fill out his term through 1995, would have to "cohabit" with a conservative prime minister, an experience he knows from 1986-1988 and which he is loath to repeat.
The French president had dreamed of creating a "progressive" majority made up of ecologists, sympathetic centrists, and reform Communists, with the Socialist Party as its base. But that hope of undercutting the conservatives' rise was spoiled by the debacle of last month's regional and local elections.
Not only did the Socialist Party achieve a lower overall score (less than 19 percent) than at any time in its history, but it lost majorities in several traditional strongholds, including the Nord region around Lille, a symbol of French socialism for more than a century.
With the Socialist Party so weakened, its attraction as a pole around which a new majority might be formed is severely reduced. This week Brice Lalonde, the non-Socialist environment minister with his own ecological movement, announced he did not want to be part of a "patch-job" and would not join a future government.
Mitterrand's plans were futher derailed when Jacques Delors, president of the European Community's (EC) executive Commission and a former finance minister under Mitterrand, squelched speculation that he would succeed Cresson, saying he would serve out his appointment, which runs through year's end.
Mr. Delors continues to ride at the top of opinion polls measuring French preferences for prime minister, and even for Mitterrand's eventual successor. He was, however, under pressure from European leaders, including German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Spanish President Felipe Gonzalez Marquez, not to abandon his post at such a critical time for Europe.
The EC's recent Maastricht accords, which call for deeper political and economic integration of the Community, are running into trouble in a number of EC countries. International trade reform talks, held up mainly by differences between the EC and United States, are entering a make-or-break period. Delors has a crucial meeting April 22 with United States President Bush.
Given Delors's "no," Mitterrand is believed to have settled on Bgovoy early in the week, only to run into tough resistance from the combative and outspoken Cresson. She said it was Bgovoy who had stymied her policies, offering to stay if she could work with a tight circle of cooperative ministers, aides says.
When Mitterrand was told a second Cresson government would be denied a vote of confidence even by some Socialists, the president settled on Bgovoy.
The new prime minister's task will be to improve Socialist standing while ushering Maastricht accords through parliament. Normally he would have a year to make the Socialist case. But no one rules out a move by Mitterrand to hold legislative and even presidential elections earlier than expected.