Franco-German 'special' relations lose their sparkle

Item. A recent full-page cartoon in the French weekly L'Express showed a sycophantic West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt polishing the boot of a smug Soviet President Brezhnev on a box labeled ''Poland 1981.'' In the background ghosts of Hitler and Stalin shook hands over Poland 1939.

Item. France's inflation is projected as 14 percent, West Germany's inflation only 4 percent this year, a spread that will pull the two neighbors in conflicting directions.

''We may have some problems coming up now,'' laconically noted one West German diplomat involved with relations with France over a period of years.

It wasn't all peaches and cream before, when Schmidt and former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing conducted their vaunted entente. But both leaders at least sought to portray their relationship in this light. That effort created its own dynamics. And there was a considerable core of substance to the image as well.

Thus, the European Monetary System arose because Schmidt and Giscard in one tete-a-tete decreed that it arise. And over a period of years the European Community (EC) got most of its new impetuses from French-German initiatives (in various permutations of confrontation and cooperation with the British).

Back in the old (Giscard) days, the connection with West Germany, Europe's mightiest nation economically and militarily (in conventional arms), enhanced French power. And the connection with an elegant Paris gave respectability to a West Germany that could only gradually expunge the inherited stigma of Hitler's Germany.

This era of special mutual dependence now seems to have passed. Despite an occasional gallant attempt by the French ambassador here to suggest convergence (France has industrialized, Germany has acquired cuisine and savoir-vivre), the two countries seem to be drifting apart nowadays.

The evidence is everywhere to be seen. Ironically, Socialist President Francois Mitterrand is nowhere near as chummy with Social Democrat Schmidt as was his conservative predecessor. Mitterrand's France is, if anything, more reluctant than Giscard's France to surrender any of its huge profits from EC food subsidies to ease the budget strains of West Germany.

Mitterrand's Keynesianism is anathema to the fiscally conservative Schmidt - and is pushing French inflation up so fast that there are doubts about how much longer the European Monetary System can survive without accelerating realignments of currencies.

Moreover, during the Polish crisis it seems that French officials have been far more interested in advertising real and imagined differences between Paris and Bonn than in coordinating the two capitals' reactions.

The return of a certain ''bash the Boche'' attitude in France troubles the West Germans. Reconciliation with the French has been one of Bonn's top priorities ever since the days of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. It discourages them because the new French critique from the right (over Poland and psychological issues if not over economic issues) succeeds an equally vehement French critique from the left, after a lull of only a few years.

Back in 1977-78 West Germany often appeared in the French media as something close to an authoritarian ogre. It persecuted dissidents with its ban on Communist teachers and locomotive drivers. It was prone to neo-Nazi outbreaks, and sluggish in prosecuting old concentration camp guards.

This unrelievedly black French picture of West Germany changed somewhat as Bonn's antiterrorist measures relaxed after the last big terrorist strike in 1977.

Now a black image of West Germany seems to have caught hold again in France, - and this time there's no official Parisian propaganda about a special French-German relationship to offset it.

The current popular French image seems to be of a West Germany that has lost its self-confidence and is intent on weakening itself by ecological, antinuclear , and otherwise anti-establishment demonstrations.

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