When Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko entered the ornately decorated Elysee Palace for a meeting with French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing April 24, a group of Soviet exiles stood quietly in the street outside, denouncing Soviet human rights violations.
The scene underlines the dilemma posed by Mr. gromyko's 48-hour visit here -- the first he has made to a Western country since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The French consider themselves to be virtually the only European country left that is still trying to maintain an open dialogue with the Soviets. At the same time, French diplomats candidly admit that the Soviets are trying to use French openness to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States. At the very least, the Soviets want to prevent Europe from presenting a unified front.
They are helped by President Giscard d'EStaing's belief that sanctions and attempts at coercion, like the boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games, may succeed in punishing the Soviet Union but won't make them pull out of Afghanistan. The French insist that continuing an open dialogue is preferable, since it gives the Russians an option of pulling out without losing face when they realized that Afghanistan is costing more than it's worth.
What isn't stated publicly in French policy is the fact that the dialogue with Russia is economically vital to France.
The French feel they have lost out in many of the major Western markets to the United States Germany, and Japan, but they still have a chance of capturing markets in the Eastern block, particularly because of their nonalignment with the US in international politics.
If a cold war resumes, forcing France to choose sides, The French economy may very likely be one of the first victims.
The Soviet news Agency Novosti underlined the point in its report on the Gromyko visit. Franco-Soviet trade contracts signed this year, Novosti pointed out, already total more than 3 billion rubles ($5.25 billion at the official exchange rate). That is one-third more than last year, and it adds up to nearly Soviets totaled $7.6billion last year, but GErmany has other markets that make the Soviet Union less crucial.
During his talks here, Mr. Gromyko added an additional carrot to the economic benefits inherent in Franco-Soviet relations by hinting that the Soviet Union may be ready to move ahead in disarmament negotiations, at least as far as Europe is concerned.
Mr. Gromyko also emphasized that France stands to gain far more by keeping itself a neutral meeting ground available to all sides than by being swept along by President Carter's hard-line positions. The argument is particularly appealing since French diplomats have been complaining with increasing frequency lately that it's almost impossible to tell how long President Carter wil maintain a stand, before reversing himself and pulling the rug out from under any allies gullible enough to support him.
Although Mr. Gromyko probably does not expect anyone to believe the Soviet contention that 80,000 troops in Afghanistan are merely protecting frontiers and saving a revolutionary government from the French when they maintain that Afghanistan is not important enough to justify ending detente.
The Soviets contend that trouble in one part of the world does not necesssarily mean that detente has to end in another part. That idea runs directly counter to President Giscard d'Estaing's contention that detente is "indivisible," and that the Soviet presence in Afghanistan is "unacceptable."
The opposing interpretations have made Mr. Gromyko's visit here decidedly chilly. The Russians have tried to interpret the noncancellation of the trip (which was scheduled before Afghanistan) as a positive sign, but the French down- graded the trip from an "official" to a "working" visit. No Soviet flags flew on the Champs Elysees.
Ultimately, Mr. Gromyko's visit appears to be only the first part of a two-punch Soviet effort to use France to win its way back into European hearts. The next step will come at an international meeting of communist parties to be held in Paris on April 28.