Paris — When Franois Mitterrand was a candidate for president, he campaigned on a pledge to ``moralize'' France's arms industry. Four years later, French weapons merchants have set a whopping new record in overseas sales, and the talk of morality is faint.
France has long been the world's third-largest arms dealer -- behind the United States and the Soviet Union. In a recent interview, Mr. Mitterrand insisted he still wants to reduce arms exports, but he acknowledged that the industry means so much to the nation's economy and military strategy that there is little he can do.
``I cannot, at the present time, put more people out of work when there is no other industry to substitute,'' he said.
Although this large French arms trade can cause friction within the Western alliance, analysts say the problem is not overwhelming. For the United States, there is even the convenience of having an ally that can arm nations the US does not want to support directly.
France's new export record shows huge growth in 1984. Some 61.8 billion francs ($6.5 billion) in military equipment -- everything from supersonic fighter jets to submarine sonar systems -- was sold to foreign clients. More than half went to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In 1981, the year Mitterrand took office, France exported only 33.8 billion francs worth of arms ($3.55 billion).
During their years in opposition, Mitterrand's Socialists had railed against the arms sales of the rightist governments. They were particularly incensed at the deals closed with Libya.
Now in power, the Socialists emphasize that their new rules prohibit arms trade with countries they consider fascist or racist: that means Chile and South Africa. Contracts drawn up with Libya before Mitterrand's election were honored, but none have been signed since.
The changes do not amount to much, however, because these deals were only a small portion of the French arms business and the huge sales continue in the sensitive Middle East.
``The change is so marginal that it's little more than symbolic,'' says Yves Boyer of the French Institute for International Relations. Arms policy is determined solely by France's interests, he says, and a healthy arms trade is very much in France's interest.
France's arms industry indirectly employs more than 1 million people at a time when the government is desperate to create jobs. Arms manufacturing provides the right kind of jobs, too, as France tries to replace its obsolete heavy industries with high-technology firms. And arms exports are a significant counterweight in France's unfavorable balance of trade.
Strategically, selling arms gives France a presence if not leverage in its client countries. And it keeps the French military equipped with the latest in modern weaponry at an affordable cost.
``It permits the French to act independent of all foreign powers,'' says Pierre Gallois, a retired general who writes on military affairs.
For the Western alliance, the booming arms industry in France does present occasional problems. The US tried unsuccessfully to discourage the sale of Super 'Etendard fighter jets to Iraq, fearing Persian Gulf oil exports would be cut off in an escalated Iran-Iraq war. When France sold helicopters to the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, US diplomats protested strongly. Mitterrand has since pulled back from the region.
But US officials try to minimize the friction. ``It does cause problems,'' says Col. Franklin W. Watkins, chief of the US Office of Defense Cooperation in Paris. ``But by and large, it is in the US interest that Europe maintain a strong technical base and arms industry.''
General Gallois and other military analysts say the United States benefits, bacause France can supply countries the US does not want to support directly. Washington does not want to arm Iraq, for example, but it is generally pleased to have France do so to keep Iran in check.
Despite the visible strength of the French arms industry, the experts are concerned about the future. The 1984 figure may be a record, they say, but France's arms trade can fluctuate considerably from one year to the next. If the growth is to continue, there are difficult obstacles to overcome.
Traditional Middle East and third-world clients are running out of money, and France must cultivate buyers in the US and Europe.
The Pentagon is shopping for an advanced field communications system, and the French are pulling out all the stops to sell their RITA system, a contract that could be worth several billion dollars.
Even more important to sustaining growth will be coordinated weapons programs with France's allies on the Continent. But joint European programs tend to dissolve in repeated sessions of bickering. A five-nation effort to build an advanced European fighter plane is stalled because of disputes over design and which country will get which contracts.