Politically, it represents a bold stroke with important consequences. Economically, it holds less meaning. That is the conclusion of analysts here about France's decision to withdraw its ambassador from South Africa and suspend all new investment in the country. France also called the UN Security Council into special session Thursday, putting pressure on other, more reticent Western countries to take similar tough measures.
Canada and Sweden have adopted some trade sanctions, but the French protest is the first concrete action taken by a major Western power since South Africa's state of emergency went into effect Sunday. The French sanctions will go into effect immediately. (Legislation calling for US sanctions against South Africa is still being considered by Congress.)
Apart from increasing South Africa's diplomatic isolation, analysts see the moves having several effects on President Franois Mitterrand's Socialist government. At home the actions support the Socialists' effort to rally support around an antiracism platform without taking any controversial measures concerning France's own large immigrant population. Abroad, they promise to solidify France's already strong position in black Africa.
In contrast to these benefits, the economic risks remain minimal. The sanctions touch only new investment in South Africa.
French companies already established there, including carmakers Renault and Peugeot, the oil company Total, and the gas company Air Liquide, are not obliged to withdraw. French banks, which are among South Africa's leading creditors, can continue to offer loans.
French trade with South Africa will not be affected. South Africa supplies France with large amounts of minerals, including uranium, and coal.
In return, France sells South Africa electronic and industrial equipment. In the early 1980s, the French firm Framatome constructed South Africa's first nuclear power plant. And Mirage fighter jets reportedly still are built in South Africa under license from Dassault.
Still, the measures represent an important shift in French policy. In the past, France argued that economic sanctions were ineffective. It refused to contemplate any type of economic sanction against South Africa -- or Poland or the Soviet Union.
When the United States imposed certain types of sanctions on the Soviet Union after the invasion of Afghanistan and on Poland after the declaration of martial law there, France complained that the US acted without proper consultation of its allies. Now, Dominique Moisi, director of the French Institute for International Relations, notes, ``We're doing the same thing.''
The effect is to separate France from the US as well as its European allies. When European Community foreign ministers agreed earlier this week to a declaration condemning South Africa, French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas made it clear France wanted to ``go further.''
In announcing the sanctions, Prime Minister Laurent Fabius expressed the hope that ``many other countries'' would join France. But almost at the same moment, British Foreign Minister Geoffrey Howe told the Royal Commonwealth Society in London that Britain had ruled out sanctions and the recall of its ambassador. Sir Geoffrey termed such measures ineffective and counterproductive.