France's foreign minister reassures US: socialist government won't rock the boat

They are poles apart ideologically, but in foreign policy Presidents Ronald Reagan and Francois Mitterrand are off to a surprisingly good start. Initial suspicions on both sides have been largely dispelled during the three-day visit here by French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson. Vice-President George Bush will follow this up with a visit to President Mitterrand in Paris on June 24, another indication of renewed Franco-American friendship.

Disagreements between Paris and Washington on some foreign policy issues are still expected to surface occasionally. But as a result of Mr. Cheysson's Washington talks, France and the US "continue to be on the same wavelength on fundamental issues" -- to quote one American official. Or, in the words of a high French official, "France will remain a faultless ally of the United States."

Mr. Cheysson reportedly told US officials that France would maintain a free market economy and remain "a stable and trustworthy partner of the Western countries with which our industrial development is intimately linked," to quote an aide to the French foreign minister.

Oddly, it appears domestic policies may have as much to do with the Reagan-Mitterrand honeymoon as foreign issues.

The French socialist government needs to reassure moderate voters on the eve of two rounds of legislative elections ending June 21 that it enjoys a good relationship with Washington.

The election of the socialist president in France poses no major problems to the US State Department. US diplomats have distinguished for some time the difference between the French Socialist Party and the Communist Party. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the Americans actually supported the Socialists, whom they knew to be the most effective bulwark against the Communists.

But a socialist government in a major allied country was harder to swallow for some ideologues at the White House and on Capitol Hill. But Mr. Cheysson appears to have convinced the Reagan administration that France remains perhaps the most reliable of its allies, even though at times it will be, as it has been in the past, or proud and "difficult" one.

Not once was Mr. Cheysson asked the question on everyone's mind in Washington -- whether Communists would be included in the French government. But Cheysson referred indirectly to the issue, stressing that "on all key issues, foreign and domestic, the Mitterrand policy has been clearly defined and stated and will not be modified."

"What the French are telling us, implicitly is: Leave the Communists to us. We know how to deal with them," said one US official.

In fact, from the beginning of Cheysson's visit to Washington, the roles were reversed. It was Cheysson who put the Reagan administration on the defensive.

"France's main complaint against the United States has to do with its stringent monetary policies," Mr. Cheysson told the Monitor in an exclusive interview.

The foreign minister warned Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Treasury Secretary Donald Regan of the "dramatic social and political consequences that high US interest rates would have on European countries and their dangerous impact on Western security."

As a clear signal of readiness to work with Mr. Mitterrand, Mr. Reagan decided to send Vice-President George Bush to Paris on June 24 to discuss the July "economic summit" in Ottawa with the French President. This is where Presidents Mitterrand and Reagan will meet for the first time.

While French and American perceptions of the North-South dialogue -- expected to be the main issue at the Ottawa summit -- remain far apart, the French have assured President Reagan that they would not be part of any effort by the other participants in the summit to "gang up" on him or to railroad him towards policies to which he may be opposed.

The news French government's views on East-West relations are very close to the American approach.

Mr. Cheysson told the Monitor that unless or until there is a significant diplomatic movement toward a solution on Afghanistan, the periodic Franco-Soviet summit meetings will not take place. And even though none of the 572 new American medium-range Pershing II and cruise missiles will be deployed on French soil (France has its own nuclear capability), Cheysson believes that "the Soviet's SS-20 missiles have changed the balance of power in Europe and must be countered, provided arms [control] talks are initiated between the US and the Soviet Union."

France's Middle East policy will be guided by the same basic principal as before: All states in the area should be able to live within recognized and secure borders. France will not be less sympathetic toward the Arabs but will try to be more even-handed. "We want to be in a position to talk to both the Israelis and the Arabs," says Cheysson.

Somewhere along the road, American and French foreign policy assessments may be expected to differ. This is true particularly with regard to the third world and to a dialogue toward a new economic order. The French government under Giscard, and now even more under Mitterrand, believes that problems in the third world should not be viewed only in relation to the US-Soviet rivalry.

Mr. Cheysson explained the change ". . . will come about gently, gradually." Differences with the US in some instances may be "a question of nuances, of degrees, not of head-on clashes," the foreign minister said.

The close partnership between France and West Germany which existed under Giscard and Schmidt, will, contrary to some reports, remain fundamental to France's foreign policy.

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