ALTHOUGH it is not in the character of French leaders to admit it, they are having a bad year. The imminent reunification of Germany and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait have shaken France's twin claims to the political leadership of Europe and a special relationship with the Arab world. France's daily tactical oscillations over the course of the current Middle East crisis provide telling signs of a nation facing a strategic quandary. One of the many ironies in this crisis is that France, which is dependent on the Persian Gulf for a high percentage of its oil, has played such a crucial role in tilting the regional balance in Saddam Hussein's favor.
While most of the Western Community quietly supported Iraq during its war with revolutionary Iran, France, along with the Soviet Union and China, continued to arm Saddam with sophisticated systems even after that ugly struggle had ground to a halt. As any Kuwaiti or surviving crew member of the USS Stark can attest, the efficacy of French-made weapons should not be underestimated. Saddam now threatens Western and Arab interests in ways that cannot justify the profits French companies earned on these sales. So much for France's claim to an intimate understanding of regional politics. By undermining the very assumptions upon which French Middle East policy has been erected, Saddam has been to France what Khomeini was to the United States.
The French government has had to reassess its posture, quickly cut off arms sales to Iraq, embrace the trade embargo, and deploy French warships to the region.
But throughout the crisis, the French have continued their pretensions of international autonomy. President Francois Mitterand initially raised strong objections to American calls for a blockade of Iraq and Kuwait. Ostensibly to avoid raising the specter of a Western crusade against the Arab world, Mr. Mitterand vowed to withhold French military assets to the multinational force being assembled in Saudi Arabia. But with at least 27 French hostages serving Saddam as a human shield and hundreds of others unaccounted for, the French government, in conjunction with the Western European Union, has announced support for the naval blockade and its intention to send troops to the Arabian peninsula.
France's Middle East dilemma is only part of a greater historic challenge. In a unique way, Mitterand has been a strong partner to the US over the last decade. French president has undergirded German resolve to honor politically trying NATO commitments. He has also promoted a more unified political and economic identity both to enhance Europe's global leverage and as a counterweight to German economic power. The Gaullists and far right, however, are reluctant to embrace such supranationalism, arguing that it will seriously compromise France's national identity.
The imminent prospect of German reunification suggests that France's independence and its claim to the political leadership of Europe are growing more hollow. The French have watched Chancellor Kohl's steadfast pursuit of a greater Germany with a sense of helplessness. Indeed, a more assertive, powerful, and economically dominant Germany will likely dwarf France's European and global position.
The end of the cold war is also likely to strike a blow at France's independent military posture. French budgetary difficulties make controversial defense cuts inevitable and even elements of the prestigious nuclear ``force de frappe'' might be eliminated. Although French nuclear weapons may loom relatively larger as US and Soviet arsenals shrink, their political usefulness is diminishing along with East-West tensions.
The sheer fluidity of the emerging international system raises the possibility of tightening links between France and the US. An identity of interests between the two states seems to be emerging both in Europe and beyond. But to discuss France's Atlantic option is akin to political suicide in a society still swayed by Charles De Gaulle's siren song.
The conditions which made France's proud independence possible are rapidly vanishing. France's future lies in binding itself tightly to its European partners in economic, diplomatic, and military affairs and redefining and improving relations with the US, which, as the present crisis reveals, remains the undisputed leader of the West.