An immutable law of French politics is that a leader can never appear too protective of France's interests or too devoted to an independent France. President Franois Mitterrand, just back from the seven-nation economic summit in Bonn, has proved this law once again.
By refusing to set a date for new trade talks that might hurt French farmers and rejecting ``star wars'' research contracts that might drain France's scientific resources, Mr. Mitterrand returned home with new stature.
As the reviews come in on his statesmanship it seems clear that, despite the damage done to Western unity, his popularity at home has received a little boost as his Socialist Party struggles to prepare for parliamentary elections next year.
``In placing himself alone against everyone,'' wrote the daily Le Monde, ``he has set the fiber of nationalism resonating and stroked French sensibilities across electoral layers, beyond political divisions.''
While there has been predictable criticism from communists and conservatives, the rhetoric about a strategy that creates fresh cracks in the Western alliance has been strangely muted.
The Gaullist leader and mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, who can usually be counted on for searing criticism of the ruling Socialists, actually agreed with Mitterrand's decision to delay trade negotiations. Mr. Chirac said France should join in the United States' Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars'') research program. But the harshest words he could find for Mr. Mitterrand's position were ``unnecessarily aggressive.''
Although criticized for being an isolated troublemaker at the summit, Mitterrand has emerged in France as a defender of French interests.
A new round of trade talks, for example, is likely to chip away at the European Community's agricultural policy, which sets prices and offers subsidies to farmers. France is Europe's leading exporter of agricultural products, and its farmers benefit heavily from the protection.
By successfully delaying such talks, Mitterrand wins some points. The last thing he needs is to inflame the fractious farmers just before an election campaign.
In turning down the SDI offer, Mitterrand set France's interests above Western solidarity. The French have long been sensitive about US technological superiority, and there were fears that the SDI program would only aggravate the difference: French scientists would be working on what is basically a US project, and France might not benefit from any of their advances.
Mitterrand said President Reagan used the word ``subcontractors'' in discussing Europe's role in the research program. ``The term only confirmed my intuitions,'' Mitterrand declared.
Beyond protecting French interests, he also acted as spoiler at what would otherwise have been a victorious Reagan summit. Had Mitterrand fallen into line, the US President would be returning home with a tacit endorsement from the Western allies for both his policies.
But if there is a corollary to the French politicians' law about erring on the side of French independence, it is that it never hurts to stand up to the US once in a while. This helped Mitterrand, too. If nothing else, it recalls the defiant stands taken by Gen. Charles de Gaulle when he was president.
However, the full impact of Mitterrand's summitry has yet to be felt.
France's position evoked pronouncements of disappointment by US officials in Bonn, and may also provoke more damaging retaliation. US Secretary of Agriculture John Block has raised the possibility of American farm subsidies to compete with European farm products.
Mitterrand's stand also leaves France a little lonely in Europe, as the EC prepares for its next summit in June. The French President has promised to announce some sort of surprise ``European initiative'' there. But it remains to be seen whether other European nations will view him as a leader or as a maverick. The future of Mitterrand's Eureka program, a proposal for Europe-wide high-technology research, remains unclear as well, since other nations have begun signing on to Mr. Reagan's SDI program.
Finally, after arduous efforts to build a close relationship between France and West Germany, there is some fence-mending to be done between Paris and Bonn. Mitterrand was said to be incensed at the ease with which Chancellor Helmut Kohl fell in behind Reagan, although both sides are now trying to minimize the differences. The two leaders are scheduled to discuss their disagreements May 28. For the moment, however, Mitterrand can stand defiant and alone with at least a faint echo of Gaullist grandeur.