Leading Article: Plus ca change . . .

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THE odd thing about next Sunday's French election is that although it is certain to change the government, it is unlikely to change much else. Given the prevailing disillusion in France (as elsewhere in Western Europe) with the governing class, that may seem a suitable outcome. That the Socialists will receive a massive vote of no confidence seems not to be in doubt. With the two main centre-right parties, Jacques Chirac's RPR and Valery Giscard d'Estaing's UDF, neck and neck, the main question in domestic terms is which will emerge on top.

Yet even if there are surprises on that front, the two coalition parties will have to cohabit with each other as well as with President Mitterrand. That will be the easier since no one claims to have found a new solution to France's main problem of high unemployment exacerbated by German-dictated interest rates. Policies are likely to converge at a point not far from the existing government's. Theoretically, the constitution gives the president control over decisions on foreign and defence matters, while the government deals with more domestic affairs. But if Francois Mitterrand were to feel that some key social provision was threatened, he could refuse to sign the bill incorporating it.

For those outside France, interest will focus on two related issues: whether the new government will adhere, as promised, to the policy of a strong franc, and whether it will adopt a more Gaullist attitude to the United States, on the one hand, and Brussels on the other. Unemployment has been the big theme of the election. The traditional means of reducing it and reanimating an economy slowing sinking into recession would be to cut interest rates and devalue, solutions all the more tempting since inflation is only 2.1 per cent. But as long as the franc remains pegged to the German mark in the European exchange rate mechanism, those options are excluded. A strong franc has, moreover, come to symbolise France's old goal of equality with Germany. To abandon it would be a high-risk strategy domestically, and would scupper remaining hopes of progress towards monetary union. But there is no doubting the fervour of French hopes that the Bundesbank will cut German interest rates again, thus enabling the French to reduce theirs.

Where the United States is concerned, there is a danger that the new government will start badly by matching the Clinton administration's apparent belligerence over the stalled Gatt talks on world trade liberalisation. That could reopen the old divisions within the EC between free-trading countries such as Britain, the Netherlands and Germany, and the more protectionist French. If the Americans behave stupidly enough, the EC will close ranks against them.

On the broader EC agenda, Mr Mitterrand will want to show that he is still in charge, as he will no doubt over Bosnia. Ministers will, however, be less emotionally committed to the Maastricht treaty which so divided them in the referendum campaign: they tend to feel, with justification, that it was the wrong response to the post-Communist era. They are likely to favour the 'variable geometry' approach, pushing enlargement up the agenda and favouring special, transitional arrangements for democratic Eastern European countries. That would square very well with British preferences.