France is rethinking its `independent' defense posture. New consensus raises hopes for European cooperation on defense

France's defense plans are being revolutionized. Instead of Gen. Charles de Gaulle's ``independent'' policy, which reserved French forces for the defense of French national territory, France now proposes to help guarantee West Germany's defense.

In recent weeks, all of France's political parties except the Communists have announced support for a plan that would throw French forces into the fray at the beginning of a European conflict. President Franois Mitterrand and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl discussed the issue briefly at a meeting last week and are scheduled to explore it further at a special summit in August.

The change in thinking brings France closer to the NATO alliance. It also raises new possibilities for European cooperation on defense, including the possibility that France would extend its nuclear umbrella to West Germany.

``A new national consensus is being created,'' says Dominique Moisi, director of the French Institute for International Affairs. ``Many of the old ambiguities about our relationship with Germany and our defense are being reduced.''

General de Gaulle's ``fortress France'' strategy long had looked unworkable. During the 1970s, then-President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing began suggesting that French independence would have little substance if West Germany were overrun.

During the early 1980s, President Mitterrand edged closer to a more European concept of defense, activating the security clause in the 1963 Franco-German friendship treaty and creating the rapid action force, which could intervene quickly in Germany.

Still, de Gaulle's legacy proved difficult to overcome. Mr. Giscard d'Estaing's Gaullist allies, upon whom he was dependent for a parliamentary majority, ruled out any strategic shift. And Mitterrand did not move too fast out of fear of undermining the national consensus on defense.

Now the old consensus has shifted. In late June, the Gaullists abandoned their archaic doctrine. In early July, the Socialists joined them, even declaring that the French nuclear force should have a role in West Germany's defense.

A follow-up poll in the French daily Le Monde showed that a majority of the public agreed with this position.

Why the change in attitude?

The French fear West German pacifism and neutralism. In the French view, the furor two years ago over the installation of United States Pershing missiles in West Germany underlines the tenuous nature of Germany's Western connection. By offering a stronger military commitment, the French hope to strengthen that connection.

For different reasons, this argument appeals both to right- and left-wingers. Pierre Lellouche, a colleague of Mr. Moisi's at the French Institute of International Relations, argues in a new book that France must contribute more to Western defense through West Germany because of reports of growing Soviet military strength. He says a weak, divided Germany under constant Soviet pressure also exposes France to Soviet pressure.

In another book, Regis Debray, a former Mitterrand adviser who is an outspoken critic of the US, argues that France and West Germany must forge a closer defense partnership so that Europe can gain greater independence from the two superpowers. In his view, a weak, divided Germany exposes France to both Soviet and US pressure.

Money is the second motivating force behind the strategy switch. Budget cutbacks mean French defense expenditures are not rising as much as expected, and French officials admit privately that France no longer can afford the cost of a purely independent defense policy.

Hardest hit are the conventional forces. Since France depends on its nuclear ``force de frappe'' for its primary defense, the Mitterrand government decided back in 1982 to reduce the number of foot soldiers as well as the amount of conventional equipment purchased.

Now the Armed Forces chief of staff, Gen. Jeannou Lacaze, has revealed that the Armed Forces will have 35 billion francs ($3.9 billion) less to spend than forecast through 1988. That translates into a further 25 percent across-the-board cut. Instead of a planned 1,200 tanks, there will be only 800. And so on.

Even the modernization of the ``force de frappe'' may have to be slowed. General Lacaze suggests canceling development of a new multiple-warhead submarine-launched missile and of a new land-based mobile missile.

Only a stronger defense partnership with West Germany could ease these looming deficiencies, French officials say. France and Germany are producing an attack helicopter and an antitank missile together. French officials say a long list of other projects, including a European fighter plane, also is being considered.

But the French admit that this cooperation faces big obstacles. They say that the West Germans are pleased with the increased French concern for their defense -- until it infringes on their relations with the US. As far as the West Germans are concerned, neither the Rapid Action Force nor even the ``force de frappe'' would provide a suitable replacement for West Germany's basic defenses in NATO.

``The Germans do not say exactly what they want from us,'' complains one French official. ``They just don't know.''

The French also face problems. Joining in West Germany's defense means drawing closer to NATO, yet no one here seems prepared for a French return to the alliance's integrated military structure, from which de Gaulle withdrew in 1967. For the sake of ``independence,'' French officials say the subject remains ``taboo.''

Although Western defense officials have long said NATO can live with such a public pretense as long as the French cooperate in private, the same officials fear French and NATO strategies remain incompatible.

As NATO talks more and more about fighting a prolonged conventional war, French strategy continues to stress the early use of nuclear weapons. French defense spending focuses on modernizing the nuclear ``force de frappe,'' NATO and West Germany are emphasizing purchases of conventional arms.

``We have made tremendous progress on security issues with Germany in the last year,'' concludes Moisi of the Institute for International Relations. ``But much ambiguity remains.''

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