As prime minister from 1976 to 1981, Raymond Barre represented economic stability, so much so that his name became a noun. ''Barrism'' meant low budget deficits, slow monetary growth - and above all, a strong franc.
Mr. Barre remains so widely respected for his economic ability that when he first criticized the Socialist government's handling of the franc in February, the French currency dropped further on the international markets. Socialists responded by calling him a ''traitor.''
For a while, Barre stayed relatively quiet. But in a recent interview with the Monitor, he offered a wide-ranging, sharp critique of the Socialists' economics.
''The consequences will be vast,'' he warned. ''Their policy will leave our public finances in complete disorder, create a massive trade deficit, increase the fragility of French money, and rack up excessive foreign debts.''
Mr. Barre's willingness to offer such on-the-record comments demonstrates the surge in the opposition's confidence after last month's devaluation of the franc. The opposition has pounced on the devaluation, France's second in nine months, as evidence that the Socialists are destroying France's economy.
Inflation is running at a 14 percent annual rate, way above the average figure in other industrialized nations. The monthly trade deficit has been sizable. While wages have been shooting up at an annual rate of 18 percent, industrial output is decreasing.
Mr. Barre says he does not believe the Socialists' imposition of wage and price controls will fundamentally alter the economic situation. He holds that France needs a liberal economic program, not a centralized one (using the word ''liberal'' in the classical sense of free-market economics). While in office, the former professor freed prices and loosened government control over industry, a process he contended was essential to improvement of France's international competitiveness.