Kohl plays off French fears of West Germany

Relations with France - and Europe - are next on West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's agenda for the new year. Well, there's a bit of other business along the way: the Stockholm conference in mid-January, Dr. Kohl's trip to Israel in late January, scrutinizing the new Kremlin tealeaves, and trying to convince President Reagan that Europeans still have to be pacified in nuclear issues.

But apart from these items, France is front and center. And no wonder, after the most spectacular of all the numerous European Community failures at the Athens summit early this month.

British-French wrangling was the cause of the Athens debacle. Near bankruptcy was the result, as the heads of government and (in the case of France) state agreed neither on a budget nor even a joint communique. Rich West Germany would normally have been the savior or, in the less flattering image used here, the milk cow.

In a Europe struggling to get out of a recession, the Bonn cow has very little more to give, however, and if West Germany is to avoid being milked anyway, it is going to have to persuade French farmers to live more austerely.

This is the problem Kohl faces. It is compounded by the French presidency of the EC during the next January-to-June half year, the general emotional nature of the French-German relationship, and Kohl's reluctance to be too activist in foreign (or for that matter domestic) policy.

Three things are working for Kohl as he approaches the next combination of showdown and love feast with French President Francois Mitterrand, however:

1. The two countries are convinced they need their joint partnership.

2. The Athens disaster may finally have jolted EC members into making the necessary hard compromises to save themselves.

3. France's recurring suspicion of German nationalism and neutralism is now in one of its cyclical highs.

The first point is obvious. The lagging French economy needs the more robust West German economy. The history-burdened Germans - even 38 years after Hitler - need the certificate of the untainted French in any pan-European policy initiatives. And both need the EC - Bonn for the mass market it gives West German industry, Paris for the massive subsidies it gives French farmers, at the enormous and rising cost of two-thirds of the EC budget and repeated brushes with bankruptcy.

The second point is equally clear: It is a cliche at every EC summit. But maybe this time (the Germans hope) it will have been bad enough to produce a shock.

The third point is the new feature. It is unrelated to the different party colors of the conservative Kohl and the Socialist Mitterrand.

It is related to the West German Social Democratic Party's recent endorsement of the peace movement's opposition to Euromissiles and French fears that Bonn is going to heed some Soviet siren of German reunification and drop out of alliance with the West.

The West Germans generally find this fear quite absurd, especially when a gung-ho American loyalist occupies the chancellery and will probably continue to do so for the next seven years. But West German diplomats figure they might as well use this French phobia and gain a little bargaining power as Paris tries to prevent the thing it greatly fears by embracing Bonn more closely.

That embrace involves, most ostentatiously, security cooperation. The two nations are pledged to joint development of a helicopter (after failing to agree on a joint tank). And in the nuclear realm, Paris not only is nerving Bonn to go through with eating the Eden apple of Pershing IIs but also is hinting it will share its own sweet nuclear targeting secrets with Bonn and maybe even evolve a pan-European nuclear capability with West German participation.

Pragmatic Bonn hardly feels more protected by France's 34 on-station intermediate-range missiles (or some futuristic European capability) than by America's several thousand nuclear warheads in Europe. And Bonn would really prefer it if the coy French would just finally commit their conventional forces to defend West Germany in case of attack.

The West Germans don't mind the French attention, however, and they hope to parley France's concern (however misplaced) about ''les incertitudes Allemandes''m into the French compromises needed to keep the EC alive. These difficult French adjustments would involve not only trimming agricultural subsidies and the contributions of the only two net EC contributors, Britain and West Germany, but also admitting France's agricultural rival, Spain, to Community membership as promised.

The French staved off these adjustments in the past by what the British deem psychological blackmail of the Germans - deflecting German pressure by musing that Bonn needs moral Paris more than Paris needs economic Bonn. Now Bonn is hoping to exert a little reverse blackmail through the French alarm about Germany.

Kohl's bilateral agenda is a full one.

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