As his French trip wound up, Mikhail Gorbachev said his recent arms control proposals ``create a new situation.'' He smiled and told a charming story about a father, a son, and a donkey to show how important it was to make progress. Then he threatened. He pounded his fist and jerked his finger into the air to warn what would happen if no progress were made.
His host, Franois Mitterrand, sat solemnly next to him at the press conference in the Elys'ee Palace banquet room. The French President never smiled. He didn't tell any charming stories. He didn't pound his fist. In a voice verging on monotone, he simply refused the Soviet leader's plan, saying France had too few nuclear arms itself to bargain with them.
The scene summed up Mr. Gorbachev's four-day visit to Paris which ended this weekend. Although the Soviet leader's powerful peace offensive put the French and the other Europeans on the defensive, it did not defrost the East-West ice. European and Soviet differences remain too far apart, and in any case, only the November summit in Geneva between the Soviet leader and President Reagan could create a real breakthrough.
Arms control dominated the discussions. As expected, Gorbachev tried to woo the French, who have refused participation in the United States ``star wars'' program, to join him in denouncing the militarization of space. But he also went much further: proposing direct negotiations with the Europeans, the unilateral dismantlement of some Soviet medium-range missiles, and the headline-making proposal of a 50 percent reduction on US and Soviet strategic arms in return for a ban on space weapons.
The initial European reaction was an amazed silence. As the first serious Soviet propositions for arms control, they had to be carefully considered. Paris, London, or The Hague (which must decide by Nov. 1 whether to deploy new US missiles), prudently didn't want to appear to be blocking progress.
It soon became obvious, though, that at least the Mitterrand government could not accept. With a mere 135 missiles compared to some 2,000 Soviet warheads, the French feel they possess too few weapons in comparison with the Soviets to negotiate. As Mr. Mitterrand said, only after the two superpowers reached agreement could France think about reducing its own force de frappe.
``Our nuclear force is limited, designed only to carry sufficient weight as to be credible,'' he explained.
The same principle held for weapons in space. Despite the French reservations on star wars, Mitterrand was not willing to separate himself from his US ally. Instead he sidestepped the issue by saying that while military research in space could be permitted, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty must not be broached.
``The two parties must reach a reasonable compromise,'' Mitterrand said, referring to the superpowers. ``We are not the decisive party in the arms race.''
On other key issues, a gulf also separated the French and Soviets. Mitterrand said the two leaders discussed a number of regional conflicts, mentioning Afghanistan in particular. There he called on the Soviets to follow the UN proposals to assure ``a neutral Afghanistan.''
The Soviet human rights situation irked the French. At almost every stop, Gorbachev faced complaints concerning treatment of Soviet Jews, such as Anatoly Shcharansky, and other dissidents, such as Andrei Sakharov. Though officially banned, demonstrators defied security police to voice opposition.
Paris's Mayor Jacques Chirac, leader of the opposition neo-Gaullist party, greeted Gorbachev with the sharp statement, ``I think with emotion of all those deprived of freedom because of their convictions.'' And Prime Minister Laurent Fabius handed Gorbachev a list of human rights cases France wanted to raise.
The Soviet leader sat impassively throughout these complaints. Replying to Mayor Chirac, he dwelled on the beauty of Paris. With Prime Minister Fabius, he took the list without comment.
In general, Gorbachev made sure not to offend with angry ripostes. His message was conciliation, at least verbally if not substantively.
``We know we are linked to two different systems, with different ideologies and different alliances,'' the Soviet leader said at the joint press conference. ``But we cannot prevent these differences from improving the atmosphere.''
Even if the rhetoric produced few concrete results, its emotional impact, combined with the winning Gorbachev presentation, was great. By the end of his trip, the French press was saluting, in the words of the daily Lib'eration's headline, ``The Gorbachev Show.''
What was in the ``show''? Not included were the brittle language and hardened positions of his predecessors. Instead, he spoke clearly and colorfully, offered a quick smile, and above all, showed a flair for the dramatic. His arms-control speech demonstrated all these qualities.
And he dominated the joint press conference with Mitterrand, where he told the fable mentioned above. A man rides a donkey and his son walks. Then a passer-by tells the father he should show greater care for his son. So the father lets his son ride. But another passer-by tells the son that he should show greater care for his father. So father and son end up carrying the donkey.
The moral: To avoid the absurdity of an arms race and its potential destruction, Gorbachev explained that West and East must not act like the father and the son, but instead must take ``concrete steps.'' Those concrete steps, he said, must come before the Geneva summit next month.