PARIS, JAN. 7 -- President Francois Mitterrand, by refusing to say whether he will run again in elections less than four months off, has created a novel guessing game that is absorbing France.

The strategy of political silence so far has allowed Mitterrand to remain on presidential heights, distant from the fray, and at the same time to become ubiquitous as a subject of speculation.

But as the April 24 first-round vote draws nearer, his coyness has begun to irritate opponents and worry some supporters, while fascinating them all.

The question represents more than idle curiosity.

Opinion polls consistently have reported that if elections were held now, the Socialist leader could defeat either of the two main conservative candidates, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and former prime minister Raymond Barre, and gain another seven-year term at the age of 71.

Mitterrand's final decision, which he insists he has not yet reached, thus will affect profoundly a number of French political careers, Chirac's and Barre's chief among them.

But Socialist pretenders, including former ministers Michel Rocard and Jean-Pierre Chevenement, also have been hanging on the president's words.

According to some presidential aides, Mitterrand's final course also could encourage a rearrangement of parliament's traditional left-right division into a centrist majority drawn toward a triumphant Mitterrand.

Finance Minister Edouard Balladur, a key Chirac supporter and strategist, last night launched the most intense high-level criticism of Mitterrand's hesitations, a sally seen as evidence of Chirac's irritation at the president's tactics and their apparent success.

Aides said Chirac plans to announce formally his own campaign later this month. But, unlike Mitterrand, he already has made it clear he is running.

In a television interview program, Balladur accused Mitterrand of holding back his own decision as a way to manufacture the appearance of popular clamor for his candidacy.

"The attitude that consists of saying each week, each day or each hour, I will be a candidate or I won't be, I will be if certain conditions are fulfilled; I don't really want to, but I will heed duty's call; I will hear the immense appeal that might rise toward me -- this is a little tiring," Balladur said.

The influential newspaper Le Monde also expressed reservations yesterday in the most direct press criticism so far of Mitterrand's strategy.

In a front-page article, the newspaper noted that Mitterrand has been able to retain the dignity of his office by avoiding the open candidacy sought by friend and foe.

"That often has been explained," it said. "But democracy has its necessities and voters have rights. What citizen concerned about the future of his country is not curious to know, sufficiently in advance, the nature of the ballots that will be proposed as well as the meaning they will have?

"Four and one-half months from the vote, who is a candidate, to do what and with whom?"

Mitterrand, at a New Year's reception with reporters Tuesday, waved aside the charges that his hesitations have been designed only for political effect.

"Believe me, I am not having fun playing with you," he said. "Let those who believe a politician is always insincere give {me} credit. When the time comes, I will tell the country what seems to me useful to do for its future. Eliminate the notion of game or calculation."

For longtime observers of Mitterrand, however, that is a lot to ask.

The veteran politician, a fixture of French public life since World War II, has acquired such a reputation for calculation and agility on issues that he is known as "the Florentine."

In addition, Mitterrand frequently has seemed to take pleasure in dropping ambiguities about his plans, teasing followers and detractors alike with sibylline phrases that quickly become Paris dinner conversations.

To reporters pestering him Tuesday for a clear yes or no, for example, he compared his present term to an unfinished symphony.

Claude Estier, a Socialist senator and longtime Mitterrand associate, predicted this week that the president will make his decision known "in the second half of February, one evening at 8 p.m.," the television news hour.

Presidential aides, pumped for such insights, consistently have told questioners that they do not know Mitterrand's decision and believe he has not yet made it.

They have described the president as torn, on the one hand, between the fear of old age and a desire to reflect and write before it is too late and, on the other, between the fear that his Socialist party will decline if he retires at the height of his popularity.

In polls in the magazine Paris Match, Mitterrand has risen and remained about 10 points above Chirac in approval ratings since the conservative neo-Gaullists took power in March 1986.

Last month, the latest poll showed 59 percent of those questioned had a good opinion of Mitterrand compared to 45 percent for Chirac.

Against that background, several discreet political organizations are promoting a second Mitterrand presidency and, according to an unfriendly official, supporters have begun organizing fund-raising networks.

A number of cultural and show business figures have called on Mitterrand to run.

The most noted was a special issue of the intellectual magazine Globe last month with a profile of Mitterrand on the cover and the headline: "Tonton, do not leave us."

Tonton, the nickname French children traditionally give their uncles, has become a frequent nickname for Mitterrand as he has aged.

More recently, a satin shirt splashed with pro-Mitterrand slogans and a cartoon of the president holding his trademark rose appeared in several chic Parisian fashion shops.

Price: about $120.