France hosts (and warms to) NATO - but wants its independence, too

In a dramatic gesture of reconciliation with NATO, France is playing host to its first Atlantic Council meeting in 17 years. The two-day meeting, which ends Friday, is expected to close with a strong allied endorsement of plans to deploy new American medium-range missiles in Western Europe starting in December. But perhaps most significant is the fact that this endorsement is to be issued on French soil.

''France is accepting its full responsibilities within the Atlantic Alliance, '' an Elysee spokesman said when asked to explain why President Francois Mitterrand decided to let NATO meet in Paris.

Nevertheless, French officials emphasize that Mitterrand has no intention of rejoining NATO's integrated military command, which Charles de Gaulle abandoned in 1966.

Despite this ambivalence, in two years in power Mitterrand has unquestionably moved France closer toward the alliance. In part, he has done this to offset fears about Communist Party participation in his government.

Most important, though, Mitterrand seems genuinely to fear the Soviet Union's expanding military power and the growth of pacifism and neutralism in West Germany. Like the Reagan administration, he argues that a strong alliance and US military presence in Western Europe are essential to sustain the balance of power on the continent.

At the Williamsburg economic summit last month he even formally joined the allies in issuing a security declaration designed to show Western solidarity and resolve against the Soviets.

Militarily, too, Mitterrand has reinforced France's contribution to the alliance. A recently enacted five-year defense program creates new airborne and rapid deployment units, which the French say can be committed to forward positions quickly.

This suggests the French realize they would have to fight alongside the Americans and other West Europeans to beat back a Soviet attack. But no official here will specify when the French Army would intervene in a conflict.

This ambiguity is a necessary concession to French independence. Without it, government officials and independent military analysts here say, the national consensus over defense policy would be destroyed.

So far, Mitterrand's increased ties with the NATO alliance have not been heavily criticized at home. But his signature on the Williamsburg declaration did provoke anger from the Communists and even some Socialists and Gaullists who fear it ties France too closely to the US.

Mitterrand's assertion of military independence was designed to clip this bud of domestic opposition, French officials explained.

The other West Europeans, as well as the US, accept the French argument that any closer integration with NATO would provoke a disruptive internal debate. With the French economy faltering, taxes being raised, and social services cut, they don't want to put the political spotlight on the expensive French military effort in Western Europe.

This feeling was expressed by Joseph Luns, NATO secretary-general. Holding the meeting in Paris ''shows the positive interest of the French government for NATO and all that it represents,'' he said. ''But this has nothing to do with the reintegration of France in the military structure.''

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