Popular unease with martial law here has grown to the point where for the first time Polish authorities are grappling openly with the problem of how to govern the country once the state of siege is lifted.

For varying reasons, different sectors of established Polish society are ready to see the seven-month-old martial law replaced by something else. This sentiment extends far beyond the leaders of the suspended Solidarity trade union, whose own confrontation with state authorities has remained a tense standoff.

The Communist Party apparatus, used to unfettered power, is uneasy about the political role played by the Army. Military leaders know that the climate of fear created in December is wearing off and that the Army's own authority risks being undermined. The Roman Catholic Church continues to press for the release of all internees and the resumption of talks with Solidarity.

But perhaps the most pressing reason for lifting martial law is the economy. Production continues to slump because of the Western credit freeze and the resulting shortage of vital resources for industry. This, together with the suppression of social initiative, makes nonsense of the government's attempts at economic reform through the introduction of free-market mechanisms.

According to a recent estimate, as many as four out of five factories have been exempted from the reform. What was billed as "a great debate" on the future of trade unions took place largely without the participation of 80 percent of the work force represented by Solidarity.

Meanwhile, the popular mood here remains a curious amalgam of apathy, fear, defiance and bitter humor. The authorities are frightened of provoking uncontrollable outbursts of popular anger if they clamp down too hard. Supporters of Solidarity realize that the government possesses overwhelming repressive strength that, in the last resort, it is prepared to use.

The result, a listless stalemate in which each side constantly tests the other but nothing ever really gets resolved, was illustrated by an incident in Warsaw's central Victory Square last week.

The square was decorated with red banners lauding the 38th anniversary of Communist rule. In the shadow of Thursday's official military parade, about a hundred people had gathered at the site where the night before authorities had removed a floral cross, an unspoken symbol for many Poles of popular resistance.

Suddenly there was a commotion when a young man who tried to take a photograph was plucked from the crowd by plainclothed security men. When police led the man away, the crowd followed, jostling the police and demanding the young man's release. Half a dozen police trucks suddenly appeared from around the corner.

"Look, they're coming to negotiate with us," someone yelled to a burst of laughter from the crowd, which recalled only too well the government slogan that "all Polish problems can be solved through negotiation."

The police trucks moved up and the crowd drifted away, slowly, sullenly, back to the site of the cross. There they laid fresh flowers, sang wartime resistance songs and put up their arms every few minutes in victory signs.

In the short term, a stability of sorts is maintained by a series of unwritten rules that are understood by both government and people even if they have never been formally agreed upon.

In the case of the cross in Victory Square, the authorities respect the fiction that it is a religious monument in honor of the late cardinal Stefan Wyszynski when plainly it has a more charged political meaning. But Solidarity badges and placards are removed quickly by plainclothesmen and the cross itself is dismantled when official parades are held in the square.

It is a very Polish compromise but, in the long term, everyone realizes it cannot last.

In his speech to parliament last week, Jaruzelski said the ruling military council hoped to suspend martial law by December. The promise was hedged with conditions--Poles were warned that social peace must prevail--but was, nonetheless, significant because it marked the first time he has publicly set a target date for a return to civilian administration.

Meanwhile, some of the mist surrounding the political shape of post-martial-law Poland has begun to clear. Jaruzelski made clear that, if martial law were lifted, the government would be given provisional, special powers "to protect the state." These would almost certainly include a ban on strikes for up to three years.

The remaining 600 or so internees, including Lech Walesa, presumably would be released--as there would be no legal grounds for detaining them--and there would also be at least a partial amnesty for thousands of Solidarity activists convicted of infringing martial law.

Institutionally, Jaruzelski is setting great store by a new consultative body to be called the Patriotic Movement for National Salvation. This grouping will include the Communist Party and its "front" organizations, but also independent lay Catholics representing the church. If Solidarity is ever reinstated, it also would be invited to join.

The movement is modeled loosely on local committees for national salvation that were set up earlier this year. The committees were largely ineffectual as they were widely seen as instruments to drum up artificial public support for the government.

Janusz Zablocki, the leader of independent Catholic deputies in the National Assembly, believes an important distinction exists between the national grouping and the local committees. In an interview, he said that while the local committees were created to justify the military crackdown, the task of the new movement was to prepare for the end of martial law by a definite deadline.

"I think that independent and democratic forces must participate in order to ensure that there is no return to the ways of governing before August 1980" when Solidarity was founded, he said. "We will express our differing views openly and expect decisions to be taken by consensus."

Zablocki also saw as a positive sign the fact that the government has left open the question of Solidarity's future--even though as little as three weeks ago it seemed that the organization would be disbanded. He attributed the change in part to maneuvering within the Communist Party Central Committee and the ousting of a hard-liner, Stefan Olszowski, as propaganda chief.

The main issue now is whether the government's latest concessions will be enough to appease millions of disgruntled rank-and-file Solidarity members. The Solidarity underground called for a moratorium on demonstrations and protests through the July 22 holiday in order not to jeopardize moves toward liberalization.

First reaction of ordinary Poles to Jaruzelski's speech was disappointment at both the lack of concrete progress toward lifting martial law and the postponement of the planned visit here next month of Pope John Paul II. Most workers are still deeply skeptical of Jaruzelski's intentions and remain totally alienated to Communist rule.

The dilemma facing Solidarity is how to express this opposition. Two months ago, there was talk of preparing actively for a general strike to force the authorities to liberalize. But preliminary results from an unofficial poll in factories suggest that support for such a strike would not be solid enough to give it a reasonable chance of success.

Another option is symbolic protests and street demonstrations, but in the past these have provided the police with pretexts for mass firings and arrests.

The mood of uncertainty was reflected in the confused reaction of a Solidarity activist released from internment last week. First he kissed the ground and shouted "freedom." Then he told reporters that the freest place in Poland was the prison he had just come from. "There at least we could hold free political discussions and wear our Solidarity badges," he explained.