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Italy's Republican premier -- a toehold for Socialists?

For the first time since Italy became a republic after World War II, it has a prime minister who is not a Christian Democrat. He is Giovanni Spadolini, parliamentary leader of the small Republican Party, sworn in June 28 to replace outgoing Christian Democrat Arnaldo Forlani. He presides over a five-party coalition Cabinet in which the Christian Democrats have 15 seats, the Socialists 7, the Social Democrats 3, the Liberals 1, and the Republicans 1.

Bettino Craxi, the man responsible for wresting the premiership away from the Christian Democrats, is not even in the Cabinet. But like Francois Mitterrand in France, he is trying to regain for his Socialists the role of dominant party of the left.

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It has been a quarter of a century now since the Socialists in both France and Italy lost their leading role on the left to the Communists. In both countries there emerged dominant center-right parties -- in Italy, the Christian Democrats; in France, the Gaullists -- facing a mainly Communist opposition. This summer, Mr. Mitterrand has brought the Socialists to power in France in both the executive and legislative branches of government. This Socialist success in France can only have whetted Mr. Craxi's appetite to do the same in Italy.

The premiership still eludes Mr. Craxi. It would probably be more than most Christian Democrats could take to switch overnight from one of their own in the premiership to a Socialist. But getting a non-Christian-Democratic Republican as prime minister now -- a historymaking move, after all -- could make it easier to have a Socialist premier next time.

Yet even the ebullient and not-easily- daunted Mr. Craxi must recognize he has a long uphill struggle to become Italy's Mitterrand -- even though his Socialists scored at the expense of both the Communists and the Christian Democrats in local elections last week.

The Socialist parliamentary base, though improved under Craxi, is still narrow. The Christian Democrats still dominate the new Cabinet, and they have repeatedly proven their Machiavellian skill in surviving and outmaneuvering their rivals. Others -- notably the Communists -- have tried to use the Christian Democrats, only to find they were being used themselves.

And the Italian Communists still have a bigger hold on the Italian working-class and disgruntled vote than the Communists ever had in France. France has had its social inequities, but Italy's are greater, exacerbated by the grim gap between north and south and the explosive climate in northern industrial cities like Turin.

Italy has been wracked by political terrorism motivated, in great measure, by a revolutionary and radical left -- notably the Red Brigades. Insofar as France has been troubled by indigenous terrorism, it has come from extremist regional separatists -- Corsicans and Bretons, for example.

Seeing Mitterrand taking Communists into the new French government, Mr. Craxi may well be wondering just what maneuvering (if any) is indicated for him in his dealings with the Italian Communists. He certainly will not want to impair his potential appeal to the Italian left by becoming too closely identified with the Christian Democrats, but he still is far from being able to deal with the Italian Communists from the position of strength that has virtually allowed Mr. Mitterrand to dictate terms to the French Communists.

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Half a decade or so separates Europe from the supposed heyday of the Trojan horse threat of Eurocommunism in the mid- 1970s. Pro-NATO European governments are barely ruffled by the admission of Communists to the new French government. They have noted that both the new French President and his foreign minister are more pro-Alliance on some key issues than was Giscard, such as improvement of NATO's nuclear capability in Europe.

The Russians' priority in Europe seems to be not getting communists into government but encouraging neutralist and antinuclear sentiment across the spectrum.

Their overall aim? Blocking installation of those cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe in 1983 intended to offset the present Soviet nuclear advantage there.

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