It has become a French political ritual, as predictable as the blossoming of sidewalk cafes in the springtime. When a government changes, television journalists start to fret about their jobs.

Official attempts to control French television, dubbed the "voice of France" by one former president, go back to the creation of television itself. They have continued, in one form or another, through changes of constitutional system and government, irrespective of the political party that happens to be in power.

It has thus come as no surprise that, scarcely two months after a narrow election victory, France's new right-wing government is giving priority to yet another "reform" of the audio-visual media. Or that Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, under pressure from his supporters to show that he is running the country, has accused the networks of bias and distortion.

As on previous occasions, the government has denied that it wants to manipulate the news or conduct a witch hunt against professional journalists. The declared aim of the reform, which includes the sale of one three state-owned television channels to private entrepreneurs, is to increase free competition and pluralism.

The suspicion nevertheless persists among many journalists that the present government, like its predecessors, is eager to settle old political scores.

Alarm bells started ringing over the weekend when Chirac attacked TF1, the television network slated to be sold, for allegedly slanted political commentaries. Urging journalists to exercise restraint, he said: "I wouldn't want the government to be forced to use the procedure of daily official declarations on television to correct excessive or distorted commentaries. That would be an absurd little war."

The broadside produced an unprecedented joint retort from the heads of the three state-run networks who noted that complaints about journalistic balance and impartiality should be directed to the High Authority for the Audio-visual Media. The authority was created by the previous Socialist government as a supposedly impartial buffer between the state and the networks but has itself been accused of political bias by the right.

Some commentators have drawn parallels between Chirac's attacks on television and the complaints voiced by the left after the Socialist election victory in May 1981.

"In both cases, it is possible to see a demonstration of the eternal paranoia of politicians. The moment a communicator does not behave like a courtesan, he is viewed as an enemy," wrote Dominique Jamet in the independent right-wing daily, Quotidien de Paris.

There have also, however, been calls for a purge of journalists suspected of Socialist sympathies. The most outspoken have come from the Paris daily Le Figaro, owned by right-wing newspaper magnate Robert Hersant, who is regarded as a leading candidate to take over TF1.

Soon after the March 16 election, Le Figaro's weekly magazine published a list of television journalists "purged" by the left since 1981, predicting that they would soon "reappear." Alongside was a list of journalists who had allegedly "profited from socialism." The implication was that they should be dismissed.

Le Figaro notwithstanding, a dramatic purge seems unlikely this time. The mechanisms of state control over television have changed over the years, and are now exercised in subtler ways than a decade ago. Thanks in part to the creation of the High Authority, there is now a buffer between the government and the networks, even if it is an imperfect one.

"In the old days, journalists could find themselves dismissed or put away in some cupboard without ever being told the real reason. Now, at least, you can make a fuss," noted one television journalist.

The state's attempts to control television reflect the mores of an ideologically divided society.

"My opponents have much of the press on their side, so I keep television," noted Gen. Charles de Gaulle. Subsequent French leaders felt much the same way, even if they expressed themselves more cautiously.

One of the most spectacular bouts of journalistic bloodletting followed the 1968 student revolution when television staff protested government censorship. The following year, more than 60 radio and television journalists were dismissed and a further 30 "exiled" to the provinces away from the hub of power in Paris.

After the left-wing victory in 1981, the heads of all three state-run television channels were replaced. So, too, were the anchormen of the principal television news programs, accused by the Socialists of acting as spokesmen for the right. The head of the second channel, Maurice Ulrich, has since become chief of staff to Chirac. A former anchorman, Dominique Baudis, is now a prominent right-wing politician.

Chirac's government has promised to abolish the audio-visual media authority, replacing it with a nine-member National Commission of Communications that presumably will be dominated by right-wing political nominees. Ministers have also said they will try to revoke a controversial license granted to France's first private television station, La Cinq, or Channel 5, by the left.

The launching of La Cinq just two weeks before the election was widely viewed here as a deliberate attempt by Socialist President Francois Mitterrand to preempt right-wing plans for commercial television and maintain his own foothold in television.