Mitterrand and Lady Liberty

FRANCE and the United States have much in common, including a long history of alliance going back to the decisive help the French gave the struggling American colonists during their War of Independence. No wonder the two countries often don't get along.

French President Fran,cois Mitterrand's two-day visit to the United States for the Fourth of July holiday will be a good opportunity to mend Franco-American fences.

The most recent cause of friction between the two countries was France's refusal to allow US aircraft to fly through its airspace on their way from England to the Mediterranean to bomb Tripoli, the capital of Libya. But Mr. Mitterrand has been telling the press lately that the issue is all water over the dam, as far as France is concerned, and that Franco-American relations are ``quite good.'' Indeed, at a superficial level, at least, the French are in one of their phases of being quite taken with things American, and Ronald Reagan is personally quite popular among the French.

Mitterrand himself is not doing badly, either. As he wraps up his first 100 days of ``cohabitation,'' as the French rather racily refer to the power-sharing between Socialists and conservatives, the President's popularity is on the rebound.

While Premier Jacques Chirac is stuck having actually to run France, the President is getting to play statesman, representing French interests on the world scene. His popularity rating, now at 55 percent, exceeds that of the period just after his election in 1981.

All this will put him in good stead as he meets with President Reagan this week and jogs American memories as to just where the Statue of Liberty came from.

It is ironic that Lady Liberty has become such a symbol of the American immigrant experience that many in the United States have forgotten that the statue was a gift from France, intended to symbolize Franco-American friendship.

Reminding Americans of where the statue came from is part of Mitterrand's mission on this visit. It would be a mission more easily accomplished if the original State Department plan to give him a ``co-starring role'' in the festivities in New York Harbor had not been vetoed as it was by the White House -- reportedly the doing of chief of staff Donald Regan.

It is hard to see what US national purpose is served by playing down Lady Liberty's French background, or minimizing Mr. Mitterrand's presence. We suspect things would have been handled differently had the statue been a gift of, say, the Irish.

But the French heritage in the US has been one of ideas rather than of people, of fundamental concepts rather than pages of names in the phone book. The libert'e the statue celebrates is clearly part of the French triumvirate along with 'egalit'e and fraternit'e.

To which we might add l'ind'ependance.

Mitterrand is balancing his trip to the United States with a visit to Moscow to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev. He is expected to resist pressure from the United States to serve as a go-between from Mr. Reagan to Mr. Gorbachev. And he has expressed concern about the White House announcements that the unratified SALT II agreement is to be allowed to lapse.

But he is also expected to refuse to blame Ronald Reagan for the arms control impasse. And he will surely continue to reject Soviet demands for direct Franco-Soviet negotiations to limit French intermediate nuclear weapons. France must press on with its plan to increase its nuclear arsenal from 150 warheads to 600, Mitterrand has said, unless there is massive Soviet-American disarmament.

All in all, it would seem Mr. Mitterrand should have been a more prominent guest at Miss Liberty's centennial party.

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