President Francois Mitterrand is putting a personal stamp on French politics - and European and international affairs - that even the most enthusiastic Francophile might well have been hard pressed to anticipate when Mitterrand took office in 1981.
What is now in question, after the surprise resignation of the French Cabinet Tuesday and the appointment of Laurent Fabius, a close confidant of Mitterrand, as new prime minister, is the extent to which Mitterrand, by this step, will be able to regain the initiative over his middle-of-the-road and rightist opponents.
The Fabius appointment, after all, is a direct signal that Mitterrand, a Socialist, plans to continue his controversial programs aimed at making French industry more competitive by curbing excessive government intervention in the nation's economy. In economic terms, Fabius is to the right of former Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy. Fabius has already said that tougher austerity measures will be needed to revitalize the economy.
A number of issues, as of this writing, remain to be resolved, including the dimensions of the future national political role of the Communists. But for the Western democracies in general, the degree to which President Mitterrand is able to regain the political momentum after a period of increasing public disillusionment is a crucial matter in itself. What needs to be kept in larger perspective amid all the internal political maneuvering now going on in Paris, is that Mitterrand has increasingly filled an assertive leadership role in European politics during recent months. That larger leadership role has been particularly welcome during this period when the United States - to all intents and purposes - is in an election-year lull that often makes it difficult for a politically divided Congress and White House to undertake new foreign policy initiatives jointly.
In recent weeks, it should be noted, Mitterrand has:
* Visited Moscow to press the case for the release of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, while standing firm in his support of new US missiles in Europe.
* Visited the Mideast, where he backed a proposal by Jordan's King Hussein calling for an international conference to end the continuing Arab-Israeli impasse.
* Pressed the case for continued and even closer defense cooperation between West Germany and France.
On perhaps no issue has Mr. Mitterrand's assertiveness in past months been more welcome than his effort to prod Europe's frequently contentious neighbors into seeking closer political and economic cooperation.
The French government has come under mounting public criticism from both the left and right - including criticism of austerity programs and job cuts, as well as government efforts to curb press monopolies and reform private schools.
Mitterrand recently called for national referendums on issues involving personal freedom.
The degree to which Mitterrand regains the initiative in domestic French politics will determine the freedom he will have to fill a larger role in European and international affairs.