If the French economy gets no worse in 1981 than it has been in 1980, the government can be expected in an election year to rate that as a major victory.

Official expectations are for a one-percent growth in gross domestic product in the new year, slight decline in an inflation rate that was about 13.5 percent during 1980 and an increase in the number of unemployed -- from 1.5 million to about 1.7 million (8 percent) by year's end.

The fight against inflation and the maintenance of a strong france have been the hallmarks of the stewardship of Prime Minister Raymond Barre, dubbed by the man who appointed him, President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, as "France's best economist."

With hindsight, that accolade appears to have had a double edge. Giscard, who had been a fixture as finance minister before becoming president and is considered no mean economist himself, managed with that remark at the start of Barre's tenure in August 1976 to transfer most of the public responsibility for the economy to his prime minister.

More than in perhaps any other major "capitalist" ecomomy, the French state plays a determining role in economic decision-making. State-owned companies set the pace, the private sector is subject to heavy governmental pressure and, through such devices as the flexible but official five-year plan, the initiative is in governmental hands.

The president has not been resisting the temptation to distribute economic pre-electoral gifts to various groups such as old-age pensioners. But Barre, who frequently voices scarcely veiled barbs about "demagogy" and lectures everyone on the need to resist "lobbies," goes out of his way to counteract anything the president does that may be inflationary.

For example, during the last two years, Barre has imposed "temporary" higher taxes on cognac, armagnac and fruit brandies, a move that has the brandy makers of southwest France threatening to vote against Giscard in the presidential elections in May.

Another device Barre uses to combat Giscard's largesse is to insist that every oil price increase be immediately passed on to the motorist without waiting the two months it takes for the new, higher-priced oil to reach the French consumer. The government takes about 60 percent of taxes on gasoline, which costs nearly $4 a gallon.

The prime minister's insistence on identifying himself with a sound franc makes it unlikely he will be renamed to his post if Giscard is reelected, since most sophisticated observers assume that what amounts to devaluation of the French currency in relation to the mark is in the cards after the election.West Germany is France's most important trading partner.

Fighting inflation to protect the value of the franc is undoubtedly attractive to Giscard's middle-class voters. But it makes French products more expensive abroad and is bad for exports, company profits, the balance of payments and employment.