French try -- but fail -- to bridge US-Soviet gulf

Just as the Europeans and Americans were going to great lengths to emphasize their solidarity on Iran and Afghanistan, here were the French shaking the alliance once again with a go-it-alone move.

That was the first reaction to the surprise summit between France's President Giscard d'Estaing and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in Warsaw. But now that the initial shock has worn off, there is considerable understanding among West Europeans for the French initiative.

It is seen as consistent with France's many past assertions of its independence. The European's main criticism of the French move deals more with the way in which the French acted -- without consultation -- than with the action itself.

The French themselves contend that the visit was designed to keep communications open to the Soviets, to prevent misunderstandings, and to help lower the risk of an escalation of international tensions. And observers here say that it can be explained on several levels:

First, the French have long felt they enjoy a special relationship with the Soviets and have a special role to play, at least in times when relations are strained, as a bridge between East and West. The French have always believed in "dialogue" -- keeping as many lines of communication as possible open to Moscow.

Second, the French seem to think the Soviets are encountering enormous difficulties in Afghanistan and are groping for some way to extricate themselves without losing face or seeing the collapse of the regime they installed in Kabul. The five hours of talks, however, apparently did not narrow the glaring East-West gap on this issue.

Third, a move like the Giscard-Brezhnev summit allows the French to make a show of independence from the Western alliance and the Americans in a style that is consistent with that of the late General de Gaulle and that finds considerable popular support in France. President Giscard d'Estaing is running for re-election in France in 1981, and a French-Soviet summit will not hurt him politically.

In many ways, the United States has not been as unhappy with the French government, until recently at least, as some observers might think.

Although the French Olympic Committee voted recently to go to Moscow, for instance, some French government officials think the vote may at some point have to be reversed. France has drawn closer to the US in its view of the strategic importance of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Its criticism of the invasion has progressively hardened.

In addition, France has kept defense spending at a relatively high level. One US defense official went out of his way at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels recently to praise the French for this.

France has also taken a fairly hard line on the unacceptability of the recent Soviet-backed "peace" proposal from Kabul. At meetings in Vienna last week, the French foreign minister was more critical of the proposal than some other Western foreign ministers. And initial French reaction to the recent Warsaw Pact proposal for a meeting of world leaders was similar to the initial American reaction: Officials from both countries felt the proposals amounted largely to a propaganda move.

American officials have remarked on more than one occasion that France is often more cooperative with the US in private than in public. Last year some French officials were saying privately that US-French relations had never been better.

Many American officials are obviously unhappy with President Giscard's mission to Warsaw, but it is too early to say whether the trip will have a disruptive effect on US-French relations.

Most offended by the method of France's unilateral move, perhaps, were the West Germans. For months they have been painstakingly preparing a summit, scheduled to take place in Moscow some weeks from now, between Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and President Brezhnev. The West Germans were careful to arrange that the German-Soviet summit occur only after Chancellor Schmidt had had a chance to consult President Carter and other West European leaders at an allied summit next month in Venice.

However, it is often said that one of the biggest changes President Giscard has brought to French foreign policy during his six years in power has been closer, and warmer, consultation and cooperation between France and West Germany. The Germans have apparently decided to be extremely diplomatic about the French leader's sudden trip to Warsaw.

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