The political malaise that grips France is now being felt directly in banks, government ministries, embassies and the streets. The threat that France's leftist parties will come to power in elections 10 months away has become a factor in current decision-making and events.
Prime Minister Raymond Barre's month-old government survived a vote of confidence in the National Assembly today, but received a setback in the streets as tens of thousands of workers joined the most serious general strike to hit the French capital since the student-worker upheaval of May 1968.
Many parts of Paris were without electricity, commuter and subways trains, mail delivery and other government-provided services for the day. Radio, television and bus services were sharply curtailed. an unrelated garbagemen's strike left Paris streets choked with refuse for the seventh day.
The political impact of the general strike is much greater than its economic consequences. Municipal workers, who in recent years have ignored calls by the Communist- and Socialist-dominated unions to stop work as a political protest against the government, joined in today's strike.
The Communists and Socialists united in an electoral alliance to take 52 per cent of votes cast in nationwide municipal elections last month. Their strategists now predict that they can defeat the centrists and Gaullists grouped behind Barre and President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in National Assembly elections next March.
While far from a certainty, that prediction is taken seriously now, not only by the municipal workers who struck today but also by civil servants at the top of ministries that could be in the hands of Socialist or Communist ministers this time next year.
In some cases they are delaying or avoiding responsibility for controversial decisions that could cause problems for them if the left wins.
"There is a 10-month paralysis setting in for this ministry," said one civil servant who, like other interviewed, declined to give for publication their identities or specific cases being affected by the shadow of the 1978 elections.
More often, the possibility of the lefts coming to power is affecting the timing of decisions.
"We point out to the minister that if this is done now, it will be difficult for the left to undo if they come in," one official observed.
Such officials are also discreetly establishing lines of communication to the leaders of the parties, especially the Socialists, who expect to pick up at least 180 seats, or about 100 more than the Communists, in the 490-member National Assembly next March.
"It is in everybody's interest that there be some educational effort at this stage, so I see X and Y every few weeks to discuss things." one civil servant said, naming two Socialist leaders.
Party membership is also suddenly in vogue.
"There were three of us three years ago," said one junior official who is changing jobs so he will have more time to devote to party affairs this year. "Now there are 50 avowed Socialists in the ministry, and people come up all the time and say. 'You know my sympathies have always been with you, but I still have to keep them quiet.'"
Privately, some Socialists seek to reassure worried voters or diplomats by citing claims of deep penetration at all levels of ministries. This will enable them to keep the Communists they let into government on a tight leash, they say.
Some Western embassies are beginning to examine this argument. Although it has not won anytance, the thesis that the United States should find ways to strengthen the socialists for an inevitable test of strength with the Communists after the left wins the elections has been aired in the American embassy here.
Washington, however, still appears to be banking on quiet support for Giscard as the only American option here.
The Socialist Party has already formed a transition team, modeled on the Jimmy Carter campaign group. A visit to Washington by Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand scheduled for Otober is being orchestrated by his advisers as a trip by the future prime minister of France.
Commentators on the state-controlled radio and television networks not only devote more than to leaders of the leftist parties now, but some of them also have dropped hostile tone that has marked previous broadcasts on the left.
Maurice Grimaud, the head of the police in Paris during the May 1968 disturbances, appeared on French television last week and apologized to 1968 radical leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit for the fact that there is still an order out banning him from France. MGrimaud is now retired.
Cohn-Bendit, a West German citizen who aparticipated in the broadcast from Geneva, remarked afterward that Grimaud "seemed to be offering himself as minister of the interior for a government of the left." Rightist French publications drew the same meaning from the appearance.
In the same week, Communist Party leader Georges Marchais was invited to address France's most important industrialists, financiers and businessment at a forum organized by the business weekly L'Expansion. A confident and assertive Marchais received a restrained but correct welcome.
The most dramatic impact the prospect of the left's coming to power has had is on business. New private investment has virtually dried up, deepending the financial crisis Barre's government faces.
"I'm refusing new orders, rather than expand and have to toke on new workers I wouldn't be able to fire if business turns down again," one small industrialist told a banker recently. Capital flight has also developed into a major problem over the past year.
Throughout two days of speeches in the National Assembly that preceded tonight's vote of confident, Barre and his aides portrayed France's malaise as the result of the lingering effects of the global economic recession still being felt in Europe. He pointed out that the economies and political situations of most other Western Europtan countries had been hit even harder.
But he and Giscard emerged from the debate with new scars and new evidence that their crisis is a doublededged one involving a growing threat from their Gaullist allies on he right as well as the challenge from the left.