Swept into power after 23 years in the political wilderness, President Francois Mitterrand's Socialists neither can -- nor want to -- carry out the wholesale purges in top government jobs considered normal practice when American administration change.

Inexperience, idealism and the very notion of what public service should be all play a part in preventing the kind of spoils system that in French eyes is associated, somewhat inaccurately, with Washington politics.

At this early stage, avoiding anything smacking of a witch hunt is an article of faith for Socialists determined to show their rightist and centrist rivals that vindictiveness is not part of Metterrand's conception of democracy.

Under the Fourth Republic -- which, whatever its manifold political shortcomings, remains Metterrand's working yardstick -- top civil servants kept the state machinery working despite weak, revolving-door governments from the end of World War II to 1958.

Civil servants were -- and are -- expected to carry out government policy unquestioningly. With the Socialists buoyed by an absolute parliamentray majority for the next five years -- and Mitterrand in the Elysee Palace for seven years -- only the most foolhardy of civil servants would attempt to sabotage such controversial government policies as nationalizations and decentralization.

Yet, in practical terms, the Socialists, like their Gaullist and Giscardist Fifth Republic predecessors, are limited in the number of people they can put into middle-level posts. The controlling factor is money.

The crucial power jobs are in the cabinets ministeriels -- the top dozen or so posts on any minister's personal staff -- plus whatever number of unofficial staffers can be wheedled out of the people who control the prime minister's secret slush funds.

As a result, the Socialists have shown a reluctant preference for the so-called enarques -- graduates of the prestigious National School of Administration, which has all but monopolized Fifth Republic policy and political jobs.

The enarques' major attraction is that they do not have to be paid. By definition their salaries are covered by the civil service, whether they originally were assigned to a ministry or to one of the "grand corps" of the state, which do everything from inspecting state finances to judging cases brought against the state.

As for the tens of thousands of young French men and women who joined the Socialist Party before and after Mitterrand's victory in the hope of serving the nation, they are being told the promised land is not in Paris, but in the provinces.

Decentralizing this most centralized of Western democracies is perhaps the Socialist government's highest priority. To make a success of that will require, according to Socialist strategists, the energies of the best and the brightest willing to fight centuries of tradition.

Whether the faithful will agree with such thinking is open to question, especially among the cynical.

The Canard Enchaine, France's satirical weekly, for example, waxed indignant for a full page about a dozen top civil servants who had served in former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing's cabinets ministeriels and remained in the same or similar jobs under Mitterrand.

The retained ranged from Pierre Giraudet, boss of government-subsidized Air France, to Jean-Yves Haberer, director of the Treasury, who has made himself useful to finance ministers ever since Gaullist Michel Debre held that post in the mid-1960s.

In theory, that is supposed to be how the civil service works in France, a country opposed to the spoils system but with a tortured enough history to keep politically out-of-favor bureaucrats on the rolls just in case their friends return to power.

But the weekly quoted a Mitterrand adviser as saying, "We have to make do with what we have" because the Socialists had neglected to selcet key people for key posts ahead of time.

After so many years in the opposition, only Interior Minister Gaston Defferre and Education Minister Alsin Savary had served in Fourth Republic ministerial posts.

Enarques knew how to keep the wheels well oiled, and the Socialists have plenty of time to find competent men for top jobs rather than put in party hacks and come to regret the choice.

Such caution has been evident when it comes to less-exalted jobs as well.

As Education Ministry secretary who had worked as a volunteer at Giscard's campaign headquarters told a friend that she had worried when she was approached by a top Socialist.

He reassured her, telling her that Socialists are political pluralists and asking her to keep her job in the Cabinet.

One day she was asked if she had been politically active. When she replied that she had, she was relieved and amused to be pumped for information about a pressing problem: demonstrators were outside the ministry and the new people did not know what to do.

"Send the chef de cabinet down to talk with a small delegation of demonstrators," she advised. "That shows you are willing to conduct a dialogue. And tell them you will see their leaders in a week, which shows the government is not giving in to pressure from the street."

Despite such anecdotes about Socialist inexperience, the government clearly has a new conception of power in a country long accustomed to be being run by a mandarin-like super-elite.

Ever since Gen. Charles de Gaulle shifted power from parliament to the president under the Fifth Republic, the secretary-general of the Elysee Palace traditionally had been an enarque.

The new incumbent is Pierre Beregevoy, who conducted the tough negotiations with the Communists in the 1970s and who started out his working life as an unskilled factory worker.

At 55, Beregevoy did graduate from the Labor Insitute at Strasbourg University, but that hardly qualifies as the kind of super-select "grande ecole " that produces the power elite. He owes his job to his pragmatism, his grit and his long working relationship with Mitterrand.

A key Mitterrand aide is Regis Debray, the 40-ish, well-born revolutionary ideologue who once recorded Che Guevara's political doctrine for posterity.

Mitterrand, moreover, has named old friends -- and even a sister-in-law -- to posts in which he sought personal loyalty and competence in agencies ranging from the counter-intelligence service to a review panel for much-critized government-controlled television.

One of the Socialists' least noted but possibily more far-reaching decisions was to name a leftist police trade union official to the Interior Ministry. It was a clear signal of the Socialists' desire to clean up the Fifth Republic's often murkey record on police matters.