A woman ran out from the crowd on the Rue des 'Etats-Unis and clasped the hand of United States Ambassador Joe Rodgers. ``We remember '45,'' she said. ``Thank you for liberating us.'' Ambassador Rodgers' Memorial Day visit to this small town in eastern France was billed as a simple, somber ceremony at a nearby US military cemetery. Instead, it turned into an emotional celebration of French friendship for America.
Thousands took part in a joyful parade which old-timers compared with the original Liberation Day. Stars and stripes fluttered next to French tricolors from open windows. School children waved American flags along the route. When the procession reached the main square, the town band broke into the ``Star-Spangled Banner.''
The hoopla was needed. After France prohibited US planes from flying over its territory on their raid on Libya last month, there were isolated reports of Americans boycotting French goods. France's reputation in the US as a bastion of anti-Americanism was reinforced.
The reaction produced dismay here. Opinion polls show that the French public thinks more highly of the US than either West Germany or Britain. To demonstrate France's deep pro-American feelings, Philippe Seguin, 'Epinal's mayor and minister of social affairs in the national government, invited Rodgers to visit the town after the celebration at the cemetery. The public reaction exceeded the minister's most optimistic predictions.
``We are the only country in Europe which organizes pro-American demonstrations,'' Mr. Seguin said above the din of the crowd. Ambassador Rodgers was just as moved. ``This is great,'' he said. ``I wish everybody in American could see it.''
Both men described the overflight dispute as ``past history.'' Seguin even insisted that if his government might have allowed US planes to fly over if it had been informed earlier and at a higher level. Another high-ranking French official agreed, offering this account of how the dispute occurred:
On the Saturday before the US raid, the Elys'ee Palace received a telex asking for overflight permission. President Fran,cois Mitterrand sent back a message asking for consultations. ``No time to consult,'' the telex came ticking back. ``Say yes or no.'' Only then, the French insist, did they say no.
French officials say they don't understand why France was blamed for weakness against Libya. France pushed the other European countries to impose diplomatic sanctions, the officials say. France is already fighting a war in the desert sands of Chad against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, they add. ``We've been tough against Qaddafi for a long time,'' says one official.
The US has moved to repair the damage. At the recent economic summit in Tokyo, President Reagan termed the problem ``yesterday's disagreement.'' In France, Rodgers expanded on the same tune. ``Our two nations share a common commitment and special responsibility to safeguard democracy,'' he said in 'Epinal.
France is crucial in this fight. Some US diplomats rank Paris as Washington's most useful ally.
``France helps the West by playing a key global role, from . . . the South Pacific to Africa,'' says one US diplomat. ``In contrast, England has rolled back from its commitments, Germany remains limited by its history, and Japan only plays an economic role.''
Under Socialist President Mitterrand, French foreign policy has pleasantly surprised the Reagan administration. When the Socialists came to power in 1981 and included four Communist ministers in the government, many US diplomats were worried. But in an effort to reduce Communist influence in his administration, Mitterrand distanced himself further from the Soviets than any other postwar French administration.
Mitterrand's help was crucial in convincing Europeans to accept new US nuclear missiles on the Continent. He participated with the US in the multinational forces in Lebanon. He has kept French troops protecting Western interests in former French colonies in West Africa.
The appointment of Jacques Chirac as prime minister, following a conservative victory in March's legislative elections, has not changed this assertive, pro-Western foreign policy. In the past, the conservatives followed the lead of former President Charles de Gaulle, who withdrew France from NATO's military wing and developed France's nuclear arsenal. Now, with no US soldiers or missiles on French territory and the President controlling his own nuclear forces, the conservatives, especially younger ones, feel confident enough to ally themselves with the US.