Socialist France's decision to sell arms to Nicaragua reflects yet another attempt by President Francois Mitterrand to provide alternatives to superpower dominance in regions of conflict.
The Nicaraguan agreement is somewhat symbolic. It amounts to only a $ 17.5 million arms package. But it does fall into the same pattern as France's moves earlier this month with Egypt and Ethiopia.
France had announced a $1 billion contract for the sale of 20 advanced Mirage 2000 aircraft to the Cairo government. The French also negotiated a bilateral military cooperation accord that includes the training of Egyptian military personnel.
Expanding relations with France, it is argued on both sides, will enable the Mubarak administration to keep from becoming overwhelmingly tied to the United States. At the same time, French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson declared his support for creation of a Palestinian state.
France has also held talks with Marxist Ethiopia on the broadening of economic and cultural ties. The French Foreign Ministry steadfastly maintains that no military contracts are in the offing, but that the French are at present negotiating a roughly 100 million franc ($17.5 million) financial credit agreement, to be co-financed by the European Community, to rehabili ate the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway line. Funds would also be directed toward various rural and industrial development projects.
The Mitterrand administration has so far withheld its official position on the plight of Ethiopia's small handful of liberation movements, such as the Eritreans, who have been fighting for autonomy for the past 20 years and claim severe repression at the hands of the Soviet-backed regime in Addis Ababa.
''By improving relations with the Ethiopians we are giving them the opportunity to loosen their links with Moscow and open up to the West,' said a Foreign Ministry official.
The possibilities offered by France and other European countries, the French say, might also help Ethiopia extricate itself from some of its internal conflicts and economic turmoil. But France's rapprochement with Ethiopia has been strongly criticized by the Eritrean Liberation Front.
The Foreign Ministry has refused to comment on whether it intends to provide military support for the Salvadoran guerrillas. And despite France's proclaimed views on freedom, democracy, and the right to self-determination for the Poles, the Afghans, and the Palestinians, it remains highly selective. Just as the government has ignored the Ethiopian liberation movements, it also seems to have shrugged off the elimination of Nicaragua's moderate forces by the Sandinista regime in signing this latest $17.5 million arms package.
The deal with Nicaragua, which was revealed last week but signed last December, calls for the supplying of two patrol boats of the type used by the French Maritime Gendarmerie, two Alouettes, three helicopters, and 15 trucks. France has also promised to train 12 Nicaraguan pilots and 12 sailors.
The French Defense Ministry argues that the weapons are ''nonoffensive.'' To mollify the US it has inserted a clause forbidding reexportation of the arms. But the daily Le Monde pointed out editorially Jan. 8 that such clauses have never restrained anyone before.
Since coming to power last May, the Mitterrand administration has never hidden its sympathies for the Sandinistas and other Latin American revolutionary movements.
On several occasions, Cheysson has referred to the ''obsessive attitudes'' of the US toward the region.
The French maintain that the present Sandinista position is not ''irreversible'' and that French involvement may prevent them from falling into the Soviet camp.
''If the Sandinistas don't buy their arms from France,'' a French official noted, ''they'll go to the Soviets. The Nicaraguan government approached us for help. It is a gesture we should not refuse.''
This is the second time in five months that France has opposed Washington's Central American policies. Last August, France and Mexico recognized the Salvadoran leftists as a ''representative political force.''
And in October, President Mitterrand declared his support for ''all struggling people'' at the Cancun summit.