Pre-Williamsburg, France asks West Germany for help

On the eve of the Western summit in Williamsburg, two key European leaders tried to put the best face on a widening split over economic policy between them.

At the conclusion of their meeting here Tueaday, French President Francois Mitterrand echoed West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in emphasizing the ''good accord'' between the two countries.

To a large extent, Mr. Mitterrand was honest in being upbeat. The Bonn-Paris axis anchoring Western Europe remains firm, especially on defense issues.

But at the same time, Mr. Mitterrand and his fellow Socialists did not hide their worry that the West German economy could swamp France. They are not pleased by the skeptical West German reaction to Mr. Mitterrand's proposal for Western central banks to intervene in currency markets to fix the rates between the currencies of Western nations.

Also displeasing to the French were West Germany's hesitancy to support a pan-European high-technology industry and its unwillingness to speed up the West German economy with faster monetary growth, playing the role of a ''locomotive'' of a European recovery despite the risk of inflation.

Behind all of these French anxieties lies a huge trade deficit in favor of the West Germans, which reached a record $7 billion last year. By weakening the franc, this deficit has forced the French Socialist government to reluctantly end its free-spending ways and ub ab austerity move.

The French also acutely resent the second-rate status the trade gap engenders. The French press has repeatedly accused West Germany of ''hidden'' protectionism.

''We are constantly frightened by German economic superiority,'' explained Alfred Grosser, a professor at Paris's Institute of Political Studies and an authority on West Germany. ''There is a sense right here that our economic policy is not decided in Paris, but in Bonn.''

The resulting danger is that in a fit of nationalist anger the French would shut their borders to West German goods. Early this week, Foreign Trade Minister Edith Cresson snapped that the trade deficit between the two countries had become ''intolerable,'' and hinted at protectionist measures unless Bonn took steps to open its markets to French goods.

While the French hope for a faster West German economy to suck up more French imports, the Bonn government does not believe in spending its way out of recession.

Mr. Kohl remained silent when Mr. Mitterrand asked him to encourage West German industrialists to cooperate with French industry. The French believe that only Franco-German industrial alliances can combat US and Japanese high-tech competition, but the West Germans are reluctant to work with nationalized French industries.

Mr. Mitterrand made it clear that the economic differences were not serious enough to cause a nasty squabble with Bonn. When Mr. Kohl promised to quickly end West German regulations that keep French goods from crossing the Rhine, Mr. Mitterrand seemed grateful. The French President reiterated that France's policy was to continue its austerity and stay firmly inside the international trading system.

Another sign that the two leaders were serious in bringing their countries together was a Common Market agreement Tuesday on agricultural prices for farmers. Mr. Mitterrand praised West German willingness to dismantle monetary compensatory funds, which have been hurting French farmers and causing them to protest violently throughout the country.

Most importantly, Mr. Mitterrand sees eye to eye with his German counterpart on the major defense issues: US nuclear weapons should be deployed, he said, if the US-Soviet negotiations in Geneva fail. The French want to increase military integration, and are even talking about the once unthinkable option of a French-German nuclear deterrent.

This French attitude on defense underscores the importance Paris attaches to keeping French-German relations strong. Whatever their differences, the French know they need West Germany as the essential counterweight to American pressures in matters ranging from the Soviet gas pipeline to subsidies on wheat exports.

Special contributor Howard Reason reports from Bonn: Kohl, like his predecessor Helmut Schmidt, regards close friendship with France as a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Kohl has shown that he is prepared to accept financial sacrifices to keep that relationship intact.

The benefits for Bonn are not inconsiderable. It keeps virtually unshackled export access to France. And it enjoys solid French support for its line on East-West relations and nuclear armament in a year when new US missiles are due to be deployed in West Germany.

But the two governments' differing economic policies seem bound to deepen the divide along the Rhine.

Bonn was caught off balance by Mitterrand's call this week for Western government intervention in currency markets. ''Nobody gave us any advanced warning of this,'' one top Bonn monetary official said. ''We don't expect it to be discussed at the Williamsburg (Va.) summit. In fact, the less said about it the better.''

Differences between Bonn and Paris were highlighted Tuesday when Mitterrand strongly criticized US economic policy at a joint news conference with Mr. Kohl after their talks, prefiguring France's tough stance in Williamsburg.

''It is not normal that we should pay for the American budget deficit. It is not normal that the dollar should reach its current heights, causing world imbalance,'' Mitterrand said.

Kohl, who lays great emphasis on harmony with Washington, did not associate himself with the attack, saying only that US policies ''no doubt have their effect in Europe.''

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