The suddenly convoked French-West German summit in Paris Jan. 13 was an attempt to revive the bilateral relationship that is the motor of Europe.
West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt initiated the summit out of concern about the current drifting apart of the two nations.
Strains in the French-West German relationship arise from two developments: ( 1) the differences in Bonn's and Paris's rhetorical response to repression in Poland, and (2) the unpredictability of French foreign policy following the election of Socialist President Francois Mitterrand last spring.
The divergence in reactions to Poland has been well publicized. Almost immediately after the Dec. 13 declaration of martial law in Poland, French officials marched in demonstrations protesting the Soviet role -- while Bonn officials carefully avoided mentioning the Soviet Union by name.
And ever since Mitterrand's election some French officials have taken a certain amount of glee in commiserating with American counterparts about how soft Bonn is on relations with the Soviet bloc.
Their actual policies on Poland hardly differ. France and West Germany, like the US and other Western allies, have imposed the same basic economic sanctions on Warsaw: withholding economic aid and credits so long as the present repression continues.
At the same time Paris and Bonn have been equally reluctant to impose economic sanctions on the Soviet Union.
France did agree with the US a few days ago to restrict exports of advanced computer technology to the Soviet Union. West Germany never did export this technology to the Soviets, however, and on other technology the two nations hold similar views.
Nonetheless, the image of a tough France and a complaisant West Germany has caught the public imagination. And this contrast has been magnified both by the apparent absence of any special personal affinity between Schmidt and Mitterrand , and by the swing of French public opinion.
Schmidt and Mitterrand, while members of fraternal parties, never developed the kind of close friendship that Schmidt and Mitterrand's conservative predecessor, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, professed. The two men are distanced by language (they share no common language, as Schmidt and Giscard shared English), as well as by personality and economic philosophy.
Nor has Mitterrand expressed much interest in the French-German alliance that all his postwar predecessors (with the partial exception of Charles de Gaulle) considered a top foreign policy priority.
Official French indifference has been compounded by the Polish issue's rekindling of negative feelings toward West Germany on the part of the French public. After decades of lingering postwar Germanophobia, antipathy for the Germans had dwindled.
There was a burst of French media criticism of perceived neo-Nazism and authoritarianism in West Germany at the time of the West German terrorist scare in 1977. But this turned out to have no political resonance, and the Gaullist's anti-German campaign bid in 1979 flopped.
Now, however, the West's relations with Poland and the Soviet Union has resuscitated an anti-German mood in France - this time from the right rather than from the left. The French news media are full of hints that Bonn is selling its soul to Moscow.
The second key factor in the cooling of French-West German relations is less well known. It is, many Western diplomats say, the unpredictable nature of current French foreign policy.
''I think France is the greatest enigma there is today,'' noted a non-German diplomat. ''Of all countries -- sometimes lamentably -- the most clear-cut, I used to think, was France. Not today. (Foreign Minister Claude) Cheysson is a very free-floating, free-speaking person who says things that would lead you to question what policy is.
''In the end it will be the President of France who decides, and I'm not sure what Mitterrand thinks about anything. I'm not sure Cheysson is reflecting a consistently shifting French President - but Mitterrand has not disavowed him.''
The diplomat noted two senior Quay d'Orsay officials predicted what the French would say at the EC foreign ministers' meeting Jan. 4, but Cheysson followed completely different lines at the talks.
''So the Germans are very uncertain what the policy of France is. . . . I don't think anyone . . . welcomes it, because the fundamental French-German relationship is one of the pillars on which Western Europe has to be built.''