When Mikhail Gorbachev stepped off his jet at Orly airport Wednesday, he was greeted by a tense-looking Franois Mitterrand. To lighten the formal, red-carpet atmosphere, the French President mentioned the balmy weather bathing Paris and advised the Soviet leader to take in some of the city's sights during his four-day stay here. Mr. Gorbachev smiled and began talking about the United States' ``star wars'' program.
While the anecdote told by a French reporter may be apocryphal, it sums up the atmosphere surrounding Gorbachev's first visit to the West as Soviet leader. As he trumpets his call for a ban on the militarization of space and advances new arms control proposals, Gorbachev looks confident and secure.
In contrast, his French host looks uneasy, reflecting his pique over an ill-timed US invitation to a mini-summit and his concern about the possible effect of the Soviet leader's propositions.
Gorbachev's initiative was well prepared. At a state banquet, following 21/2 hours of talks with Mr. Mitterrand, Gorbachev sought to strengthen French opposition to President Reagan's research program into space-based defense, the Strategic Defense Initiative. He denounced it as ``an attempt to transfer military rivalry into space -- as if there wasn't enough of it on earth.''
Then he tried to use the issue to drive a wedge between Europe and the US. Gorbachev stressed that the Soviets can develop fruitful ties with Western Europe -- even if Soviet-US relations remain strained. And he said that he was encouraged that ``the USSR and France could come to a decision to check the armament race in a whole series of its most dangerous directions.''
The offensive culminated yesterday, when the Soviets released details of their new arms control proposals. Gorbachev gave a dramatic address to the National Assembly, and spokesman Leonid Zamyatin called a press conference to brief reporters on specifics of the proposal to achieve a 50 percent cut in superpower nuclear weapons.
The French seem caught in a bind to find a response. Like the Soviets, they too oppose the Strategic Defense Initiative, or ``star wars,'' fearing that it could undermine the present system of nuclear deterrence. But they also fear being coopted into a Soviet propaganda campaign just weeks before Gorbachev is to meet with Mr. Reagan in Geneva. In his dinner toast, Mitterrand urged both superpowers to find a ``reasonable compromise'' on arms.
Ambivalent sentiments also color the French approach to the Soviet arms proposals. French officials say they are pleased that the Soviets have put their first concrete offer for cuts in strategic weapons on the Geneva table, explaining that it was a sign that the Soviets finally may be ready to engage in substantive talks.
But the French are worried that the proposals will repeat Moscow's insistance that its SS-20 missiles, which can reach Europe, be measured against the independent French and English nuclear deterrent. The French insist that their nuclear weapons are needed to defend France alone and cannot be negotiated along with US weapons.
Before Gorbachev's visit, the French thought the Soviets were going to drop this demand. But French spokesman Michel Vauzelle, speaking after the initial Mitterrand-Gorbachev talks, hinted that differences over this and perhaps other matters had resurfaced. He said the talks focused on the balance of East-West forces in Europe and the implementation of nuclear arms talks, describing them as taking place in an atmosphere of ``frankness'' that was ``without ambiguity.''
In contrast, Mitterrand's relations with President Reagan seem less clear. The French President feels squeezed by his US ally. He was forced into a highly public rejection of Reagan's invitation to a mini-summit for allied consultations in New York on Oct. 24.
Coming only a day before Gorbachev's arrival here, the invitation embarrassed Mitterrand. He could not accept, French officials explain, without jeopardizing France's independent voice in world affairs by looking like a puppy dog following his American master.
At the same time, however, Mitterrand sees France as a loyal US ally. Since his election in 1981, Mitterrand has moved France closer to the US and away from what was viewed traditionally as ``special relations'' with the Soviet Union.
He has been particularly outspoken in support of the deployment of US missiles in Europe. So he is reportedly trying to find a compromise. His spokesman explains that, while Mitterrand is still unwilling to go to the New York meeting, he would be willing to see Reagan before the November superpower summit -- if the two men meet alone and can agree on a date and place.
In addition to the sensitive issues of nuclear arms, Mitterrand is under domestic pressure to take a tough line with the Soviets on human rights. Several human-rights groups are holding rallies to protest Gorbachev's visit, despite a ban on demonstrations.