Does Europe really favor Jimmy Carter? The European presS, while not particularly enthusiastic about the lackluster presidential campaign in America, generally says, "yes."
But a strong underlying sentiment on the right and center of such bodies as the seven-nation Western European Union (WEU) and the 21-nation Council of Europe favors Ronald Reagan.
That is the view of officials close to political leaders in London Paris, and Bonn contacted recently by the Monitor.
The press consensus, says Lawrence Freedman of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, is based "partly on the devil-you-know principle." In this view, Mr. Carter, however inconsistent and tactless his past , is seen to be more of a "known" quantity than the "devil you don't know" of Mr. Reagan, whose harder line on security and defense raises worries.
It is this single point -- the assumption that Mr. Reagan would adopt a tougher line with the Soviets -- that most colors European views. It appears that Mr. Carter's relentless offensive against his opponent on this point -- most recently in the Oct. 28 television debate, which was rebroadcast in Europe -- has made its mark both on hawks (who are drawn toward Mr. Reagan) and doves (who fear he will return Europe to cold-war status).
"There won't be great wailing and gnashing of teeth if Reagan wins," says Mr. Freedman, "but he will have to do a lot of convincing of the Dutch, Belgians, and Norweigians, where there is a lot of detente sentiment."
In West Germany, where new friction with East Germany has led to renewed anxieties over detente, a poll by Stern magazine shows popular support running strongly to Mr. Carter.
Even Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, thoroughly miffed by Mr. Carter's reversals over deployment of the neutron bomb in 1978 and more recently by a letter from the White House chastising him over his talks with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev, is said to be apprehensive about Mr. Reagan, feeling that West Germany's Ostpolitik dealings with the East might be endangered.
In France, such weekly magazines as Le Point, l'Express, and Le Nouvel Observateur have mounted major spreads on the US election and on life in America -- although Mr. Carter, generally favored in the French press, is scorned by some Frenchmen as a weakling.
"They like Giscard." says one observer, "because he is the man who is in charge." A French diplomat adds that "the man in the street is ashamed of the hesitancies of the United States foreign policy of late."
That attitude, perhaps, explains the favorable reception recently given former President Richard Nixon in France: He was seen, for all his failing, as a man with a firm hand on the tiller.
In London, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has carefully avoided expressing a preference. But one official with evident understatement noted that, while she had come to respect Mr. Carter, she might feel "closer ideologically" to Mr. Reagan.
But a significant number of British and continental diplomats are concerned over the widespread image of a pro-Carter Europe, according to a leading conservative figure in the WEU who also sits in the British Parliament and in the Council of Europe, The image, he believes, is inaccurate.
He confesses some of the support for Mr. Carter comes from "traditional liberals who would have preferred Teddy Kennedy, but have had a settle for Jimmy Carter because [John] Anderson is so clearly a lost cause."
But he worries that there are more subtle reasons for a pro-Carter stance:
* Ultra-nationalist right-wingers, particularly in France, resent US leadership, he says. Having learned that Mr. Carter "is quite incapable of continuing to give" that leadership, he says, they want him re-elected -- to insure America's star continues to decline.
A colleague of his in Paris, agreeing, summarizes the views of this lobby as saying, "Why should 250 million Europeans have to rely on America? We've got to assume our own strategic fate in due course."
In that view, getting out from under American domination would be easier with a relatively weak American president.
* Ultra-left "neutralist-pacifists," says the WEU member, also believe their aims "are more likely to be achieved with a weak and ineffective president in office." Growth of nuclear disarmament lobbies in Britain and on the Continent, and of what one Bonn official describes as "the left-wing press Mafia," is said to be responsible for anti-Reagan sentiment.
"They're playing a little bit the card of Moscow," says the official. In this view, the Kremlin is said to lean toward Mr. Carter because America's global influence is more likely to be reduced by Mr. Carter than by Mr. Reagan.
* One French diplomat warns of what he calls "powerful lobbies representing European oil companies." They are said to be influencing the continental press to support Mr. Carter -- largely because they feel that Europe's acknowledged dependency on oil from the Middle East would be more endangered by Mr. Reagan than by Mr. Carter.
These sources do not deny there is grudging support for Mr. Carter among European leaders. But they also agree that the right, where Reagan support is to be expected, is typically more reticent about voicing its feelings thatn the vociferous left. "This 'silent minority' of millions of Europeans," says the WEU member, "deeply resent the loss of American credibility across the board in international affairs."