French grandeur

AMERICANS and indeed others are sometimes baffled by the French tendency to often go it alone in international matters -- ignoring the views of friends and allies. French President Franois Mitterrand's recent refusal to come to New York prior to the Geneva summit to meet with President Reagan and other NATO leaders and to attend Mr. Reagan's post-summit briefing of NATO heads of government in Brussels are examples of the French propensity for ``independence.'' During the de Gaulle years such snubs were often directed at Britain and the United States, neither of whom had suffered defeat in the war and neither of whom had always dealt gently with de Gaulle. This gave rise on occasion to the feeling that the French were at heart ``anti-Anglo-Saxon.'' That view is, I believe, mistaken. Let me explain why I disagree with it.

It so happened that during more than half the German occupation of France I served in our Vichy embassy where I was privileged to work with members of the French Resistance. Because of this background, in the early 1950s -- when serious difficulties arose with France over how to try to weave West Germany into a European and Atlantic framework on the basis of equality so that it would in its own interest be firmly joined with the West -- I was instructed by President Eisenhower to visit Paris. The purpos e of this mission was to persuade some of my former Resistance friends who now held high government positions to accept a solution along the lines that we were proposing.

After one unproductive session with an old Resistance friend, at which our suggestions were rejected out of hand, I said with some exasperation: ``Why are you French so anti-Anglo-Saxon?''

He reached over and smiling patted me on the knee saying: ``My dear friend, we are not anti-Anglo-Saxon, we are chauvinistic. In truth,'' he added, ``we are often much more difficult with our European neighbors than with you Anglo-Saxons.''

He explained that French youngsters have drubbed into them from childhood the historic grandeur of France. They are taught, he said, ``that France has been a great country for centuries, that its language is the language of diplomacy, and that its culture has no equal.''

As for the rest of Europe, they learn that Germany and Italy have been unified nations for only just over a century; that the Kingdoms of Belgium and the Netherlands are too small to rank as great nations and also only came into being in the last century; that Luxembourg is a delightful duchy but not a nation; that Switzerland is a curious genetic political accident that works but occurs only once in history; that Spain, like France, is an ancient and proud country but is one hundred years behind France in development; and that Britain too is an authentic nation of centuries standing, but it is not ``European'' but ``Atlantic.''

``I am not saying this perspective is entirely objective,'' he concluded, ``and I know we sometimes lack humility, but that's the way we are. However, we know our future is bound up with that of our European and Anglo-Saxon allies, so my advice is not to overreact.''

It was the most candid explanation of the roots of French grandeur that I had ever received, and it was good advice. For when French leaders beat the drums of nationalism and grandeur, we must expect the French people to respond with approval as they did when President Mitterrand turned down Reagan's and NATO's invitations before and after the Geneva summit.

Only once in recent memory has a French act of ``independence'' backfired. This was when Mitterrand invited the Polish Communist ruler, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, to Paris contrary to the policies of his European allies and without discussing it with them. In this case, to Mitterrand's apparent surprise, a sense of outrage sparked by French noncommunist unions over Jaruzelski's treatment of Lech Walesa and the Polish union, Solidarity, overcame any instinctive nationalist desire for France to act ``indep endently.''

Douglas MacArthur II, a lecturer and consultant on international affairs, is a retired career ambassador who served in France before, during, and after World War II.

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