France's Michel Jobert: US critic turned salesman
San Francisco — France, perhaps the most verbal nation on the face of the earth, has hatched some of America's sharpest critics, from Alexis de Toqueville to Jacques Barzun.
One of the more acerbic members of that club today is Michel Jobert, novelist , bureacrat par excellence, and at present a top-ranking minister in the Cabinet of Socialist President Francois Mitterrand.
In the early l970s, Mr. Jobert, then Georges Pompidou's foreign affairs minister, unleashed his verbal pyrotechnics on Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and made headlines. He has been wagging his bony finger at America ever since.
Needless to say, his American hosts were thunderstruck when Mr. Jobert arrived here last week to bury the ideological hachet and talk goods and services. As Mr. Mitterrand's minister of external trade and the first Cabinet member to visit the West Coast, Jobert sidestepped discussion of El Salvador, Namibia, Chad, France's planned purchase of Soviet natural gas, and other French thorns in Washington's side.
Instead, he focused on the nuts and bolts of drumming up French trade in the US, and at one point even tongue-lashed his Socialist countrymen for their mercantilistic naivete.
''The French have not had a commercial mind since Louis XIV. They have been adminstrative, too legally minded . . . but that is changing,'' Mr. Jobert said as his chauffeured black sedan sped off from his hotel to summitry with executives at Ford Aerospace and professors at the Stanford Business School.
By that time he had already talked across the boardroom tables of Bank of America, the world's largest bank, and Bechtel, the nation's largest construction and engineering company, both headquartered in San Francisco.
''We tend to put the blame (for France's economic problems) on the Americans, '' continued Mr. Jobert, referring to French accusations that Washington's tight money policy is boosting interest rates and unemployment in Europe, thereby choking business expansion and fomenting social unrest.
''I say let's face the competition by our own skillfulness and not put the blame on others,'' he said.
Like much of the world economy, French business is in a slump, with both consumer spending and capital investment sagging. However, last year French exports, one of the only sectors of the economy to grow, rose l4 percent. Economists credit the increase not only to Mr. Mitterrand's prompt devaluation of the French franc but also to Jobert's aggressiveness and pragmatism.
A diminutive, generally soft-spoken man who stays fit kayaking and jumping rope, Mr. Jobert prides himself on being a tough bureaucrat armed with a caustic wit. He has remained politically astute and agile enough to have served under Gaullists, centralists, liberals, and now Socialists. But for the tastes of some Frenchmen he may be too much like the chameleon.
When Mitterrand was elected last May, students danced on the Left Bank while Washington grumbled that a Marxist president with Communists in his Cabinet might sidle up to Moscow. The White House however, was delighted to find that Mitterrand was far more vocal in his criticism of Russian military build-up and abuse of human rights than his right-of-center predecessor Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
What's more, Mitterrand fully supported the Atlantic alliance and openly backed West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's policy of placing NATO cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe. The problem now, Mr. Jobert said, is that Europe's antinuclear protesters want their cake and eat it too.
''Yesterday,'' he said, ''they (Europeans) wanted to be under the atomic umbrella of the United States and were more American than the Americans. Now the Americans say for your own protection you need missiles on your own soil, they say 'No, we don't want them.' ''
Mr. Jobert admitted, that despite agreement between France and the United States on East-West superpower issues, deep conflict remained in foreign policy regarding the Southern hemisphere. France's military aid to the Sandinista-run Nicaraguan government; its opposition to US involvement in El Salvador; its aid to Chad's Libyan-backed regime; and its demands for South African withdrawal from Namibia, continue to rankle the White House.
Jobert, who was born in Morocco, and didn't actually see Paris until he was l 8, has an affinity for developing countries. What separates US and French foreign policy toward the third world is basic philosophy, said Mr. Jobert. ''The difference between the United States and France is that you believe (political) evolution is natural in this part of the world, while my country thinks it should be encouraged.''