Japanese trade sanctions on French goods were the burr under President Francois Mitterrand's saddle as he arrived in Japan April 14.
The French, like other European countries and the United States, want to sell high technology goods to Japan. But all the Japanese have offered the French at this point is a reduction on high tariffs on cognac.
Thus, in what must sound to the Japanese like a broken record, Tokyo was expected to hear again that it cannot continue its huge export surplus.
[According to French statistics, Japan's trade surplus with France quadrupled to more than $1.6 billion in the seven years ending in 1981, Reuters reports.]
Mr. Mitterrand's five-day visit, the first ever by a French president to Japan, will also include discussions on ways to help world economic recovery, high technology exchanges, wealth imbalances between the rich and poor countries , and defense.
But the growing trade frictions and increasing French sentiment to pressure the Japanese to open their markets were expected to dominate discussions.
''Japan must understand,'' Mitterrand said in an interview last week, ''that it cannot inundate its products on the European market without observing the rules of the game which would make this happen as harmoniously as possible.''
President Mitterrand will bring this message to Japanese Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki.
At the recent European Community summit in Brussels, Mitterrand called on Europe to develop a common strategy toward Japan, and French officials here are stressing that Mitterrand sees himself speaking for all of Europe when he presses the Japanese for trade reciprocity.
To assist in averting the danger between Japan and the European states, an official of the French Foreign Ministry said, the French were attempting to strike a middle ground between the German distrust of tariffs or other protectionist measures, and the British policy of marrying the Japanese in numerous joint commercial ventures such as the agreement between BL (formerly British Leyland) and Toyota to produce a Toyota model in England.
The Germans have kept their doors open to Japanese electronic goods. The result has been that its once-potent electronics industry has been seriously hurt.
The French don't want this to happen to their electronics industry, nor to their automobile industry. With sales last year of $40 billion, these two sectors are pillars of the country's economic activity, key to Socialist hopes of ''relaunching'' the French economy.
As a result, French officials said Mitterrand will be looking to keep the Japanese penetration of the French auto market at 3 percent, a level the Japanese have voluntarily set themselves. Reports have it he may be looking for a similar voluntary quota on Japanese electronic goods, which had sales of about
To head off such protectionism, the Japanese are aiming to cooperate with the French. ''We can work more together,'' a Japanese diplomat here said.
The French say they are willing to increase joint ventures, but not in the British style. ''The agreement between BL and Toyota is just an excuse for penetrating the Common Market,'' a French Foreign Ministry official complained. ''We want real cooperation, the real transfer of technology'' to French companies.
Just last month, Sony Corporation seemed to agree to these terms to gain entrance to the French market. ''Sony is prepared to transfer all its video technology to France,'' Sony president Akio Morita announced here. Morito proposed ''a true cooperation'' in research and development of ''concepts and products'' with French electronic firms.
Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki, who will meet with Mitterrand Thursday, told a French magazine last week that he wanted to increase cooperation with France in nuclear and aerospace industries, two fields in which the French are world leaders.
Even so the French remain wary of Japanese economic prowess and willingness to cooperate. This week's cover of the French newsweekly Le Point, for example, pictured a muscle-bound Japanese Superman, complete with red cape, blue uniform, and familiar logo, soaring over the globe spreading cars and electronic goods.
''The Japanese don't seem to be conscience that this trade imbalance can't continue,'' the French Foreign Ministry official complained. ''I still don't believe they see cooperation as a two-way street.''