French politicians are campaigning hard, like their American and West German counterparts, for presidential elections just a year away. Right now the significant issue is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
President Valery Giscard d'Estaing will be running for a second seven-year term. And, as in the case of his own election in 1974, Georges Pompidou's election in 1969, and Charles de Gaulle's in 1965, the most serious challenge President Giscard d'Estaing faces is from the left.
If the French Communist Party rebuilds bridges with the Socialists, Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand could win the presidency. In the final count in 1974 , Mr. Giscard d'Estaing beat Mr. Mitterrand, but with only 50.7 percent of the vote.
So at the present moment, a great deal of atention here focuses on Communist Party leader Georges Marchais. As the party's general secretary, Mr. Marchais steered the Communists into their "common program" with the Socialists in 1972 -- and then steered them abruptly out again in 1977.
That break was a boost for Mr. Giscard d'Estaing and for his uneasy center partnership with Jacques Chirac's Gaullists.
Virtually all government policy decisions here must take account of whether they will help keep the Communists and Socialists split apart.
The French are extremely caustic about President Carter's Afghanistan policies -- saying that his tough line there is based not on foreign policy considertions but on his attempt to win votes by appearing "presidential."
Many French are equally cynical about their own President's Afghanistan policies. The view here is that President Giscard d'Estaing recognizes the tremendous threat posed by the Soviet intervention but must pay even greater attention to domestic political challenges because of the coming elections.
If Mr. Giscard d'Estaing aligned himself with the Carter administration, it is said here, Socialist and Communists would be far more likely to rebuild their common front.
Recent polls indicate that the Communist Party's popularity took a sharp dip following Georges Marchais' January trip to Moscow -- and his outspoken support for Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
At the recent French Communist Party conference, Mr. Marchais reaffirmed his support for the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, calling it a positive advance toward detente and world peace.
French Socialists, meanwhile, have taken a strong position against Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. And socialist leaders have denounced Mr. Marchais in particular and the French Communist Party as a whole, charging that the Communist Party here has aligned itself with Moscow, rather than its Eurocommunist colleagues.
French Communist historian Jean Elleinstein has broken with the Communists and has joined in the bitter attacks on them.
"Between Eurocommunism and archeocommunism -- or theold pro-Soviet policies of communit parties -- I regret to say that the leadership of the French Communist Party has chosen archeocommunism," Mr. Elleinstein said recently.
He explained that Mr. Marchais has broken with the Eurocommunism as practiced in Italy, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Japan, and Mexico where "the touchstone" is "real independence vis-a-vis the Soviet Union."
But both Mr. Elleinstein and the Communists' Socialist critics could change their stand if Georges Marchais could prove his charges that the Gisgard government is taking orders from Washington.
In a lively session with the press recently, the Gaullist leader, Jacques Chirac, made it very clear that France is nto and will not jeopardize its independence by taking orders from anyone. And to drive that point home, he called for moves to strengthen the economy -- and particularly to strengthen French military defenses.
Mr. Chirac, who resigned as President Giscard d'Estaing's prime minister 3 1/ 2 years ago, generally supported the present government's policy. He specifically endorsed the decision against joining in the European-US talks in Bonn and said he agrees with the French government's stand against an Olympics boycott.
Smiling broadly, the young and handsome Mr. Chirac -- who had been expected to declare himself a presidential candidate Feb. 12 -- instead left his options open, generally backed Mr. Giscard d'Estaing's policies, and closed by quoting from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, "there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak . . . a time to plant and a time to reap."