PARIS — When West Germany jolted NATO by demanding superpower negotiation on Europe's short-range nuclear missiles, the United States and Britain led an angry counterattack. France, once pivotal, remains silent.
``We can't be indifferent about an issue which affects European security,'' admits a French diplomat. ``But because we are not part of NATO's integrated forces, this subject doesn't concern us directly, and we will not take an official position.''
Yet only a few years ago, President Fran,cois Mitterrand stood up in Bonn's Bundestag and supported new American missiles in Europe. The stunning initiative helped convince West Germany to accept deployment. Today, France remains wary of Europe's denuclearization, but reluctant to rebuke West Germany, which it considers a crucial ally.
``When Brezhnev's Soviet Union looked aggressive, it was easy to be firm and lead the political battle,'' says Philippe Moreau Defarges of the French Institute of Foreign Affairs. ``With Gorbachev, we get caught in a competition for dialogue with the Soviet Union, a competition in which Germany has a definite advantage.''
During the Gaullist period, France made itself into a key player by withdrawing its military forces from NATO, building up its own independent nuclear forces, and forging a strong alliance with West Germany. In today's era of d'etente, President Mitterrand is struggling to keep this influence alive.
But French and German interests are diverging. Bonn is rushing to take advantage of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's ``new thinking'' in foreign policy to reduce the danger of nuclear war on its soil. Paris is hesitating, fearful that more negotiations on European nuclear weapons could lead to pressure for elimination of its own independent nuclear forces.
These latent contradictions are becoming clear.
After German Chancellor Helmut Kohl went last fall to Moscow, with great fanfare, Mitterrand quickly scheduled his own visit this winter, even though officials here admitted he had ``nothing concrete'' to discuss with the Soviet leader.
Mitterrand also has tried unsuccessfully to counter German ostpolitik through a series of his own trips to Eastern Europe. In recent months, he has traveled to Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. Visits to East Germany and Poland now are planned. But the trips have produced few economic or political results.
France also faces new limits on its own military preparedness. Back in the 1960s under former President Charles de Gaulle, France managed to build its own independent nuclear force, but the cost of modernizing that force is now proving exorbitant.
Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chev`enement has been complaining about budget cuts, and analysts say the pressure will mount for him to abandon programs for a new fighter jet, a new aircraft carrier, or a new tank. The only solution: more joint procurements with NATO, even at the cost of giving up some of France's cherished independence.
France now enjoys a political consensus around a security policy that calls for staying outside of NATO and maintaining its own nuclear profile. In contrast to West Germany, where support for Mr. Gorbachev has forced Chancellor Kohl to make concessions, the French public remains skeptical about the Soviet leader.
The French President also faces little pressure to alter his position; opposition leaders Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing and Jacques Chirac have steered clear of criticizing Socialist foreign policy.