THE past several years have been difficult for France and the United States. Beginning with the Gulf crisis, through the disputes about NATO's future, and into a bitter conflict over a US-European Community GATT agreement on agriculture, French and American positions on important issues often have diverged.
Differences between Washington grew to the point that at the end of last year, during discussions of French-German plans to create an independent "Eurocorps," then-US Secretary of State James Baker III reportedly asked his counterpart Roland Dumas, "Are you for us or against us?"
The recent French election, following America's change of course, presents an opportunity to create a more trusting relationship between the US and its oldest ally. Doing so, however, will require open minds, understanding, and compromise on both sides, which are far from guaranteed.
The French vote was an even greater upset than had been expected. The right's landslide, however, hardly means smooth sailing for new Prime Minister Edouard Balladur of the neo-Gaullits (RPR). Instead, the vote may lead to what might be called a "triple cohabitation." Mr. Balladur will have to get along first with his pro-European liberal (UDF) coalition partners, second with the large anti-European faction in his own party, and finally with the Socialist President, Francois Mitterrand. Mr. Mitterrand, d espite the repudiation of his party by voters and his own 26 percent popularity rating, is planning to stay on to finish his seven-year term, which runs until 1995.
For the US, the most promising facet of the new government is its attitude toward NATO. Even the so-called "Gaullists" now criticize the Socialists for their ongoing resistance to NATO's adaptation. RPR leaders such as Jacques Chirac point out that "integration with 70,000 American troops will not have the same meaning as when the US contingent was 300,000." Party defense expert Francois Fillon calls for a "recasting of the Gaullist model for defense"; Gaullist deputy Jacques Baumel calls for "an end to France's outmoded attitude toward NATO"; and Balladur has suggested that NATO expand to include the states of Central Europe.
While a full return to NATO's integrated military structure is unlikely - the French still believe it less necessary than ever without a clear threat from the East - it is likely that the new government will be prepared to rejoin many of NATO's other bodies, including the Military Committee and the Defense Planning Committee.
If there is reason for optimism on the military front, however, there is reason for pessimism on trade. Center-right leaders have vowed to be "much more firm" than the socialists on agriculture and the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade (GATT) talks. The future Foreign Minister Alain Juppe now speaks of a "growing consensus in France that the rules of international trade need to be changed."
Moreover, faced with cohabitation a presidential election in 1995, no French leader will dare to make a compromise on GATT that would lead violent and electorally powerful farmers to take to the streets. Mr. Chirac declares bluntly: "If there has to be a crisis, we shall face it." He calls last winter's EC-US agriculture agreement "null and void."
The French elections also have important relations within the EC. France's pro-European policy and its ties with Germany are recognized by the entire French political class - with the exception of the extremes - as the pillars of French foreign policy. Nonetheless, while the government is prepared to implement the Maastricht treaty, many of its members take a restrictive view of "European union" and are skeptical of the Socialists' strategy of integration with Bonn.
Indeed, even the "pro-Europeans" within the RPR like Balladur call for less focus on the "exclusive game" with Germany and "better relations with Great Britain and the United States."
France's new leaders do, however, seem prepared to move forward on European monetary union, even if this means a "small union" that would leave some European states behind. An independent Bank of France and tight budgetary policy are to bring credibility to the franc fort strategy that the government vows to pursue. Paris also hopes to implement an economic-growth initiative along with Germany, a plan that depends on lower German interest rates.
Mr. Juppe hopes that dangling a carrot - French support for Germany as a permanent UN Security Council member - will bring interest rates down.
This idea, however, is mistaken. The independent Bundesbank could care less about a German UN seat. And Bonn, dealing with the reconstruction of the east, the asylum problem, and a recession, will be in no mood to "buy" a Security Council seat from France.
A deadlock in the GATT talks could also spark a Franco-German crisis: Export-dependent Germany is desperate for a liberalization of trade. Certain members of the German government - including Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel - have said that they will not back down to the French.
French foreign policy is thus at a crossroads. The Clinton administration should welcome a new security partnership with France; it is one of the few countries in the world truly prepared to devote resources and attention to international security. But any new strategic partnership could easily be spoiled if a trade war breaks out.
Chirac says France is ready to face "crisis," but he should know that if GATT goes down the tubes, American troops could be withdrawn from Europe, provoking a crisis not only on trade but one going to the heart of France's alliances with Washington and Bonn. Juppe now speaks of a coming "great rendezvous with the United States." Let us hope he understands the consequences of not showing up.