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Socialists put own stamp on French budget

When Michel Rocard released his first budget this month, there was no elaborate ceremony. France's Socialist prime minister, in office since last spring, took a day out of his vacation in Sweden to sign the letters determining how much money each ministry can expect for the next fiscal year. The figures show his determination to break with policies of former Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's conservative government.

Austerity remains the watchword, but relative austerity. Total spending will rise a mere 4.5 percent, 2 percent in real terms. That's more than the 3.1 percent figure of the Chirac government last year.

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Under Mr. Rocard, the French state will continue to play a large role in the economy. Mr. Chirac's privatization program has been halted, and with it, the billions of francs of one-time revenues. Instead, Rocard plans to increase revenues by instituting a wealth tax.

Socialist spending priorities are on education, research, and culture. About 11,000 new teachers will be hired as the school budget rises by 5.5 percent. The research budget goes up 8 percent.

The biggest winner of all, however, is the Culture Ministry. Its budget will increase by 12 percent and will help fund President Fran,cois Mitterrand's favorite building projects - renovation of the Louvre and construction of a new opera at the Bastille.

In contrast, the Defense Ministry will have to retrench. It will reduce its number by about 8,000 men, probably by cutting back draftees.

Independent defense analysts have been warning for the past few years that the country can no longer afford an independent defense policy. Instead, they say, it must move closer to the NATO alliance - whose military wing it withdrew from in the 1960s - and must share more defense procurement with other Europeans, particularly West Germany.

Rocard's choices must be approved by Parliament in the fall, and will be the first major test of his Socialist minority government. The conservative opposition is still regrouping following its electoral setbacks last spring, and is not sure what attitude to take toward Rocard.

Hard-line right-wingers among Chirac's neo-Gaullists advocate an aggressive strategy, but they are a minority. Centrists repeated last week that they were hostile to ``systematic opposition'' about the budget.

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