Mitterrand swings France toward the third world

The three latest French foreign policy initiatives confirm that France will be more sympathetically involved in the third world under socialist President Mitterrand than it was under his predecessor.

This, in turn, increases the potential for strain or irrilation in French-American relations.

The three initiatives involve El Salvador, southern Africa, and the Middle East. The opening toward El Salvador's leftists is the most immediately jolting for Washington. But Francois Mitterrand's diplomatic moves in the Middle East are likely to prove more ambitious and broad-ranging.

El Salvador. This past weeked, France and Mexico came up with a joint statement recognizing El Salvador's guerrilla-led left-wing opposition Democratic Revolutionary Front as "a representative political force." This is a considerable boost for the front, which -- on the very day (Aug. 28) that the joint statement was issued -- was being accused by United States Secretary of State Alexander Haig of "straight terrorism."

Neither France nor Mexico has withdrawn its recognition of El Salvador's junta under President Jose Napoleon Duarte, which is backed by the United States: Mr. Duarte plans elections in El Salvador in March, for which he has full US support.

Outside governments friendly to the left-wing opposition want an effort to mediate between the opposition and the junta before the elections. Mr. Duarte and the US oppose any such mediation. But the French-Mexican statement will doubtless be used to give a boost to the international campaign for that course of action.

To keep things in perspective, the point should be made that there has long been a division of opinion between West Europe's Social Democrats and Christian Democrats on the question of mediation between junta and opposition in El Salvador.

President Duarte is a Christian Democrat, and foreign Christian Democrats are against mediation. Guillermo Manuel Ungo, titular head of the left-wing opposition coalition, is a Social Democrat, and foreign Social Democrats want mediation to give Mr. Ungo an opening. French President Mitterrand is, of course, a Social Democrat.

Southern Africa. Mr. Mitterrand's policy is showing itself more sympathetic to black nationalist causes than French policy was under President Giscard d'Estaing -- and at a time when US policy under President Reagan is shifting in the opposite direction toward greater sympathy for the white South African position.

Earlier this month the French ambassador in South Africa reportedly sounded out fellow Western ambassadors in Pretoria about a joint representation to the South African government over the forced removal of black squatters from the Cape Town area. He dropped his idea when he saw that other Western diplomats -- most notably those in the US Embassy -- would demur.

But since them the French government had an opportunity to make its new approach clear. It has publicly condemned the South African incursion into Angola. The United States pointedly has not.

The Middle East.French efforts to resume a more active diplomatic role -- not only in the Arab-Israel dispute but also in Lebanon -- are symbolized by the current visit to Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria of French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson. His already extensive travels since he took over the Foreign Ministry earlier included visits to Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. He plans talks in Egypt and Israel. And a string of Arab dignitaries has been visiting Paris.

Most significant, perhaps, President Mitterrand himself has chosen Saudi Arabia for his first official visit (next month) to a foreign land -- other than routine summits in Bonn and Ottawa. He had talks with King Khalid of Saudi Arabia when the latter was in Paris in June. France gets almost half of its oil from Saudi Arabia.

This pattern suggests not only that France is as concerned as ever to cultivate its Middle East oil suppliers and weapons customers, but also that:

* The new President is giving priority to Arab states over Israel.

* And among Arab states, he is giving priority to those critical of the Camp David approach to a Middle East settlement.

This presumably is deliberate, intended to put France into a better mediatory position than Mr. Mitterrand's pro-Israel image on assuming the presidency might otherwise have permitted.

This past weeked in Beirut, Foreign Minister Cheysson has had his baptism of the cross fire to be endured by anybody getting involved as a go-between in the Arab-Israel dispute.

Before leaving Paris, he had come under fierce attack from France's Jewish community for his planned meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. Once in the Middle East he found himself a odds with Mr. Arafat over the site of their meeting. Mr. Arafat wanted it at PLO headquarters, to enhance PLO legitimacy, Mr. Cheysson more informally at the French ambassador's residence. They compromised by meeting Aug. 30 at the Lebanese prime minister's home in Beirut.

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