Bringing Communists into the French government naturally causes unease in Washington and West European capitals. Since NATO was formed in 1949 only Iceland has had Communists participate in government and that only for brief periods. France, of course, is not a member of NATO but it has close ties with the alliance, and therefore any Communist inroads on the French political scene are bound to stir anxiety -- both in terms of possible communist access to sensitive NATO deliberations and a spinoff effect on such countries as Italy where a strong Communist Party has long sought to come to power.
But the alarm may be premature. There in fact is probably more method than madness in President Mitterrand's decision to give Communists four minor, innocuous cabinet posts. That he has done so seems to point to his confidence that he can neutralize them. If the Socialists had not won an absolute majority in the National Assembly and were forced instead to rely on a coalition with the Communist Party, the inclusion of Communists in the government would in fact be more dangerous. They would then be bona fide rather than token participants. But Mr. Mitterrand's overwhelming mandate gives him a freedom of action he otherwise would not have had.
Throughout his leadership of the Socialist Party since 1971, it might be recalled, Mr. Mitterrand has skillfully built up a solid popular base not by joining forces with the center and center-right -- as did the Socialists in Italy or the French Socialists in earlier times -- but by electorally embracing the Communists and preempting the latter's role as the main opposition party. The strategy worked. Now, perhaps, he needs to ensure that the politically weakened Communists do not cause him trouble in the huge trade union federation they still lead. Having them in the government, therefore, could be Mr. Mitterrand's way of continuing to command the left and seeing to it that the Communists behave responsibly. He already, for instance, has secured their acquiescence to his tough anti-Soviet foreign policy line.
What will be important to watch, however, is what France's new leader does in domestic policy. No one really knows how far and fast Mr. Mitterrand means to follow through on his socialist platform. So far he has proceeded cautiously. But the nomination of Communists to his government can also be interpreted as a fulfillment of his electoral pledge not to move to the center -- as a sign that he does intend eventually to carry out far-reaching leftist reforms.
This may not please some of France's allies abroad. But Mr. Mitterrand clearly is a man who knows his own mind. It is doubtful the fidgeting in Washington will turn him from his course -- whatever i t may be.