In agreeing to consult West Germany before firing nuclear weapons onto German targets, France is for the first time surrendering some of its nuclear sovereignty. In practice, this may not prove to be much of a sacrifice, since the agreement reached in Paris Feb. 28 provides for advance consultations only insofar as time allows. Time may not allow much, and President Fran,cois Mitterrand explicitly reserved to France alone the actual decision about whether or not to press the button.
Since the French lay such store on principle, however, their express willingness to confer with West Germany is viewed in Bonn as a significant step. Chancellor Helmut Kohl told journalists he was ``extraordinarily satisfied'' with the agreement at the 27th regular summit of French and West German leaders held in Paris at the end of February. And privately, an aide to Dr. Kohl was enthusiastic about ``getting an institutionalized process of consultation'' on French tactical nuclear strikes.
The agreement now brings Paris into line with the nuclear practice of Washington and London. Although all governments concerned want as little publicity about it as possible, the US and Britain have both promised to consult West Germany before firing tactical nuclear weapons onto German soil, according to Kohl's aide and a party source from Kohl's Christian Democratic Union.
Paris's willingness to consult Bonn on ``pre-strategic'' nuclear targeting, as the French call it, does not extend to any use of French strategic missiles against targets in the Soviet Union. It affects only the 75-mile range Pluto that can almost reach Frankfurt and the forthcoming 220-mile Hades that will be able to reach East Germany.
That East German and not just West German targets are included in the promised consultations was indicated by President Mitterrand. He told reporters that the area to be covered by the bilateral consultations is that territory ``where Germans live.''
One of Bonn's prime aims in the increasingly close bilateral defense relationship has been to nudge Paris closer to a binding promise to join the common defense of Europe from the first moment of any Soviet-bloc attack. To this end Bonn has been quite willing to provide a bilateral screen behind which Paris can quietly step up its cooperation with NATO and retreat from the go-it-alone Gaullism that sparked French withdrawl from the NATO military wing in the 1960s.
In this context, West Germany is especially pleased that the largest-ever bilateral maneuvers will be held in West Germany in 1986/87, with participation of the new French Rapid Action Forces. According to a West German source, the point of the exercises will not be to rush French troops up to the West German-East German border for front-line defense, but to use French forces as the critical reserves to fill gaps as they appear.
If French forces could be counted on to join any NATO defense from the moment of an attack on West Germany, NATO's inferiority in manpower relative to Warsaw Pact forces would be turned into rough balance.