Franois Mitterrand won't play ball with Mikhail Gorbachev. When the urbane new Soviet leader arrives here today at the start of a four-day visit -- his first to the West since assuming power -- the French President expects to face a ``charm'' offensive. Its goal, according to French diplomatic officials, will be to exploit the common French-Soviet criticism of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars'') before Mr. Gorbachev's November summit with Mr. Reagan in Geneva.
Instead, the French will tell the Soviets to stop their own space defense research. President Mitterrand will insist, French officials say, that no wedge can be driven between him and his fellow European leaders and their American ally.
The French President's message to his guest will be blunt: Soviet policy in Western Europe has failed. Attempts at intimidation, as with the deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles, or seduction, by hinting at special relationships with individual countries, have strengthened European fidelity to the Atlantic alliance. Putting a warmer face on these old policies will not work, say French officials. To improve relations with Europe, the Soviets must take concrete action on arms, Afghanistan, Poland, trade, and human rights, Mitterrand will say.
``We hope the Soviets want to start over again [with d'etente],'' said one French official. ``But don't expect any big breakthroughs. Gorbachev must know that any attempt to separate Europe from the United States will be checked.''
Yet Gorbachev must clearly be gratified by the French President's stance against SDI. (Gorbachev no doubt will also be gratified by Mitterrand's decision yesterday not to attend the mini-summit with Reagan in New York later this month.) Mitterrand opposes the space-based defense project as a destabilizing factor in the arms race, as a threat to France's nuclear deterrent, and as an attempt by the US to consolidate its domination of European technology.
Still, French opposition to SDI remains different from the Soviet opposition. Unlike Moscow, the French do not oppose SDI research. They say the Soviets are secretly engaged in the same research the Soviets are calling on the US to stop.
One big question hangs over this tough French strategy: Greenpeace. As Pierre Lellouche, associate director of the French Institute of Foreign Relations, comments, ``Gorbachev will find a man whose personal prestige and authority -- both at home and abroad -- have been badly damaged by nearly three months of rumors, contradictory statements, and resignations of top officials.'' The French government has admitted bombing the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand on July 10.
At the least, Mr. Lellouche says, this weakness will make it difficult for Mitterrand to criticize the Soviet human-rights record. At most, Lellouche concludes, the Soviets could succeed in striking a deal which would ``bolster Mitterrand's prestige in exchange for a mutually beneficial joint communiqu'e condemning the militarization of space.''
French officials reject this scenario. They say Mitterrand has rejected a proposal for issuing such a communiqu'e.
Mitterrand has stood up to the Soviets before. When the Soviets tried to block deployment of US missiles in Europe, he responded with the memorable phrase, ``The pacifists are in the West, the missiles are in the East.'' And when the Soviets insisted that French nuclear missiles be included in the Western count at the Geneva arms control talks, Mitterrand adamantly refused, to the point where the Soviets now seem to have quietly dropped this demand.
These tough positions represent a shift in French foreign policy. They put an end to the picture of a ``special relationship'' between France and the Soviet Union. This picture was fostered a quarter of a century ago by President Charles de Gaulle's effort to turn from an Atlantic alliance in favor of his vision of ``Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.''
The Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, and of Afghanistan in 1979 helped sidetrack the relationship.
Despite Mitterrand's antagonism, French officials believe Gorbachev chose to visit France for his first trip to the West out of respect, as one puts it, ``to the special historical relation between our two countries.''
In addition to France's differences with the Soviets on ``star wars,'' the French also disagree with the Soviet call for a general ban on the militarization of outer space. Weapons should be banned, but military satellites for observation and communication should be allowed, say the French. In their view, such satellites help provide confidence and stability.
This seems to leave little for Gorbachev and Mitterrand to agree on. If Gorbachev follows up on his suggestion of last week to make large cuts in the Soviet nuclear force, the French will welcome it. But for Soviet relations to improve with France -- and with the rest of Western Europe -- the Soviets must first come to an agreement with the US.