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Scientific research is a priority for French Socialists

Exercising the host's prerogative, President Francois Mitterrand opened the recent Versailles summit with a long appeal for a coordinated Western effort to mobilize a technological revolution.

The choice of subject is revealing. For the French President, research and technology are as much a priority as the pressing issues of monetary instability and East-West trade which eventually dominated the summit. Mr. Mitterrand argues that mastery of the coming technological revolution will clean up much of the world's economic mess by creating new industries and new jobs.

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Already he has moved to put this philosophy to the test at home. In late June the National Assembly approved his ambitious plan to make France the world's third technological power, behind the United States and Japan. The five-year program revamps the Ministry of Research and Technology, and calls for sharp increases in research spending.

While most French scientists are overjoyed by the new emphasis on their work, the first year of Socialist direction of research has received mixed reviews. The skeptics complain that the Socialists are interfering in the running of research institutions, not listening to scientists' advice, and choosing the wrong areas in which to money.

There are also doubts about the government's commitment to its ambitious plans. Although the Ministry of Research and Technology budget has been increased by 22 percent this year, bringing it to 16.5 billion francs (about $2. 3 billion), a yawning budget deficit had forced the increase to be a quarter less than originally envisioned. And the new austerity policies here, calling for further budget cuts, endanger the 18 percent annual increase scheduled for research through 1985.

Still, research remains a priority for the Socialists, who are convinced that it is critical to France's future economic success. Not only does research play an important role in economic growth by creating new industries, but the Socialists also argue that it can help modernize existing industries, reducing production costs. With such costs 15 to 20 percent higher here than in Japan or the US, the Socialists say France must invent to compete.

''Research will help us prepare for the future by making our industry internationally competitive,'' said Pierre Papon, technical consultant to the Ministry of Research and Technology.

This thinking is not new here. Similar themes were heard during the 1960s when President Charles de Gaulle emphasized research in an effort to free France from American science. Too, under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the French developed a limited number of specific high technology, export-oriented sectors, including aerospace, data processing, pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications.

Nevertheless, the Socialists argue that it was during the Giscard d'Estaing administration that the French research effort began to lose its momentum. According to recent ministry figures, French research spending reached 2 percent of GNP in 1967, and slipped to only 1.8 percent in 1980, as opposed to 2.2 percent in both West Germany and Japan. The Mitterrand government's objective is to raise French research spending to 2.5 percent of GNP by 1985.

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Deciding how to spend all this new money is one of Mr. Mitterrand's best and brightest, Jean-Pierre Chevenement. As one of France's five most senior ministers, Mr. Chevenement directs a ministry that for the first time has direct control over nearly all of the country's research organizations.

In wielding this power, Mr. Chevenement has angered some scientists. Last October the social science director of the prestigious Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique, Mr. Christian Morrison, resigned, charging the minister with interfering with his work. Though no specifics were divulged, an uproar resulted, and the president and director of the center subsequently also resigned.

''People at the center were very, very upset,'' said one center official. ''But now the feeling is that Mr. Chevenement has learned his lesson and will respect our independence.''

Mr. Chevenement also angered scientists by his handling of a colloquium he called in January to hear their advice about his plans.

''We really worked hard preparing our reports, only to find right after the colloquium the government announcing its decisions,'' a scientist said.

At least this incident shows that Mr. Chevenement has definite ideas about where he is leading French research. He has named seven areas in which he will concentrate the new flow of money, including electronics, biotechnology, and alternative energy sources.

''They are good choices,'' one scientist said, echoing the comments of others. Still, there has been some grumbling that Mr. Chevenement is neglecting basic research and the social sciences.

Even more controversial is Mr. Chevenement's intention of fitting his government-controlled research program into the Socialists' overall strategy of a closely planned economy. His adviser, Mr. Papon, stressed that not only would government take the leading role in defining and coordinating the research effort, but that the recently enlarged, nationalized sector would be its main beneficiary.

The nationalized companies will sign long-term government contracts that will include provisions for research spending, Mr. Papon explained. They will be expected to devote a greater proportion of funds to research than private industry, he added, though smaller, private companies will be able to share their research facilities.

Such government control is what reportedly worried both President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when Mr. Mitterrand offered his proposals for technology cooperation at the summit. They argued that government is staffed by risk-averse civil servants, while innovation is fundamentally entrepreneurial.

As a result, although Mr. Mitterrand's report was endorsed at the summit - it was agreed to set up a working committee to propose specific measures to increase the cooperation on research among the industrialized countries - both the Americans and British remained cool to the idea.

Although the government has traditionally been the prime mover behind research in France, some Frenchmen are worried by the specter of excessive government control. ''French research needs a boost,'' agrees Bernard Giroux of the Conseil National de Patronat Francais (the national employer's association). ''But that boost could easily get too bureaucratic, which would be inefficient.''

Specifically, the fear is that the government may be pouring money into areas where research will do no good. For example, the Socialists' goal of saving such ailing, older industries as steel and textiles through new technology is questioned.

In defense of its program, the Socialists argue that the private sector takes only a short-term view, and as a result deemphasizes research that will pay off in the long term.

As Mr. Chevenement said in a recently published interview, ''This is what makes the difference between Socialist reasoning, which attempts to anticipate, and liberal reasoning, which trusts spontaneous market forces.''

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