When French President Franois Mitterrand welcomes Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski today at the Elys'ee Palace, he will become the first Western leader to shake hands with the Polish leader since 1981, when martial law (since lifted) was declared in Poland. For General Jaruzelski, the meeting represents a triumph in his effort to legitimize his regime. For President Mitterrand, it proves his determination to lead what he calls a realistic policy toward Poland.
Both goals are controversial. In Poland, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and his advisers in the banned trade union reacted to news of the meeting with dismay and fear that ``the government and not the Polish people will profit.'' In France, public outcry greeted the news, with even pro-government trade unions complaining that France had abandoned ``its defense of human rights.''
Until now, Mitterrand's government had proved the firmest opponent in Europe to the Jaruzelski regime. Poland evokes deep sentiments in France, both because Poles have long settled here and because the two countries were long-time allies. After Solidarity was crushed, the largest demonstrations in Europe took place in Paris. Not long ago, a Polish diplomat here described Franco-Polish relations as ``nonexistent.''
Relations between Poland and other Western countries are little better. When Jaruzelski visited New York this fall to attend the UN General Assembly, no United States official met him. Jaruzelski's other travels outside the Soviet bloc have been to third-world destinations, India, and most recently, Libya and Algeria.
Similarly, few prominent Western officials have travelled to Warsaw.
In this context, the benefits for Jaruzelski in today's meeting are clear. Without having to soften his stand at home, he gains recognition abroad. Polish officials explain that such recognition is needed if their country is to recover from its severe economic problems. It is no accident, analysts here noted, that Jaruzelski's visit follows his recent ministerial shake-up which brought numerous economists into the government, and the recent rescheduling of Poland's debts.
Mitterrand's motives remain less clear. When he announced the visit, he tried to downplay the significance by calling it a ``technical stop,'' since Jaruzelski comes to Paris between visits to Algeria and Tunisia. But in editorials, the daily Le Monde suggested that the French President wants to prove after the US-Soviet summit that France can act alone in dealing with the Soviet bloc.
Mitterrand himself merely cited realism. ``Whatever one thinks,'' Mitterrand said, ``Poland exists.''