Faint cracks begin to appear in French-West German alliance

Officially, France and West Germany are still the closest of allies. At the 46th Franco-German summit, which took place in Bonn recently, all was harmony. But under the surface of the 22-year-old Paris-Bonn alliance serious cracks have appeared.

At their encounter in Bonn, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Franois Mitterrand traded warm handshakes and kind words. Both sides considered the meeting a success.

On major issues -- East-West relations, the need to build a strong and united Europe, the Middle East -- they see eye to eye.

And yet in recent months the mood of the Franco-German couple has apparently changed, according to many diplomatic observers.

A number of situations have come up recently that point to a cooling in the relationship. West Germany linked up with Britain rather than with France to build a European fighter plane.

West Germany agreed to support Columbus, an American space-lab program, rather than France's space-shuttle project, Hermes.

It withdrew from a plan to build a Franco-German tank, and opted for a smaller military project -- a simple battle-field helicopter.

It grew more reticent with regard to developing a West European currency unit, which France supports.

A French diplomat, who has worked closely with the West Germans for years summed this up recently. ``Whereas for 20 years Bonn always showed willingness to sacrifice its short-term interest for the long-term Franco-German common good and never hesitated to pay the price demanded by the implementation of Franco-German policies, in recent months West Germany has given notice that it was no longer willing to act as West Europe's treasurer.''

In 1963, French President Charles de Gaulle decided to build his country's future upon a historic reconciliation and partnership with West Germany. German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer seized the opportunity, seeing it as a chance for West Germany to regain influence in European and world affairs.

President de Gaulle, and his successors Georges Pompidou and Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing actively pursued the policy of bringing the two nations closer together.

One senior West German diplomat, speaking of this alliance, says, ``Separately, France and Germany don't carry enough weight to be taken seriously by the United States. But together, with France's influence in Africa and its stable society and with West Germany's economic strength, the two countries were in a position to give West Europe a credibility and a certain autonomy vis-`a-vis the US.''

However, when President Mitterrand came to power in 1981, he took steps that put some distance between France and West Germany.

One former aide to the President says, ``Mitterrand was distrustful of everything his predecessor had done, and thus felt lukewarm towards the sort of ties Giscard d'Estaing had established with [former Chancellor] Helmut Schmidt.

The French President let it be known in 1981 that he intended to develop similar ties to Italy and Britain as those France enjoyed with West Germany. To many diplomatic observers, this was a grave error on Mitterrand's part, contributing to a diluting of the Franco-German alliance.

A year and a half ago, however, Mitterrand began to perceive that France had become isolated on the international scene. He changed his course, and began to take steps to bolster relations with West Germany. In the meantime, however, ``things had changed in Bonn,'' according to a French diplomat who was posted there.

Dr. Kohl, a conservative, feels more comfortable with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan than with Mitterrand, a socialist. Politically, Kohl sees relatively little to be gained from maintaining an expensive partnership with France.

``This is not to say that West Germany wants to turn its back on France,'' said a West German politician recently.

``Kohl, and others in Bonn would probably still like to enjoy the best of both worlds -- to be close partners of the Americans and intimate friends of the French.

``Unfortunately,'' this politician says, ``some new developments such as SDI [President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative] and [the French high-technology project] Eureka are forcing us to make choices, and we are, in all truth, divided and hesitant.''

Understandably, Kohl is trying to bid for time and to postpone making difficult final decisions which could further distance his government from France, according to several officials in Bonn.

Meanwhile, there is increasing concern in French government quarters.

``The soothing words we hear in Bonn do not convince us,'' said one French official recently.

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