THE last channels that France will explore for avoiding war in the Gulf have as much to do with positioning for the post-crisis period as they do with resolving the crisis itself. Yesterday, after talks between the United States Secretary of State James Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz broke down, French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas invited all Arab delegations to meet on the Gulf crisis.
Recognizing that prospects for a diplomatic solution by the Jan. 15 deadline are dimming, France is eager to ensure its role in resolving the conflict and its place in the Arab world.
``[French President Fran,cois Mitterrand knows that France's standing in Arab countries hinges on how this is resolved,'' says one Algerian analyst. ``If France can look like the power that headed off this war, its historic place is fortified.''
If, on the other hand, there is a war and ``France takes part in an attack, it will be less targeted by the Arab masses than the Americans,'' he adds, ``but not overlooked. Why else have they just added several feet to the wall around their embassy in Algiers?''
The European Community (EC), of which France is a member, also wants dearly to play a diplomatic role in the crisis, not only because of Europe's proximity to the region, but also to assert itself as a political force in international affairs.
The Iraqis are showing little regard for the EC's influence, however: Following the breakdown of US-Iraqi talks in Geneva, Mr. Aziz turned down, for the second time in less than a week, an EC offer to meet. Foreign Minister Jacques Poos of Luxembourg, which has assumed the rotating six-month presidency of the EC, invited Aziz to Algiers for discussions, but Aziz said he would only meet EC representatives in Baghdad.
Diplomatic contacts across Europe - among Europeans, with Arab countries, and with the so-called ``nonaligned'' countries represented by Yugoslavia - have reached a desperation pace. Most eyes are turned to France, which while insisting that the United Nations resolutions on Iraq's withdrawal must be obeyed unconditionally, says it will pursue all avenues to peace until the morning of Jan. 16.
By highlighting its high-level talks with Algeria, France is signaling to the Arab leaders and people that it recognizes there can be no solution to the region's problems without them.
At the same time, the French are careful to safeguard their international role as a Western power. French President Fran,cois Mitterrand reaffirmed Wednesday that France will participate fully in an eventual military strike to free Kuwait, an ``obligation'' he said France would fulfill as a member of the UN Security Council and ``one of the world's major powers.''
``France intends to be present at the settlement'' of this conflict, Mr. Mitterrand said Wednesday night at his eighth press conference since Iraq invaded Kuwait.
``France cannot be absent from this part of the world,'' he said. ``As one of the world's major powers she must fulfill her role.''
Refuting recent press analyses suggesting strong differences between the US and France on the Gulf, Mitterrand said there was a solid ``harmony'' between the two countries. He acknowledged disagreement over proposals for one or more ``international conferences'' to include the Palestinian issue, but said both countries' positions were understandable and did not exclude agreement on the need for a full Iraqi withdrawal.
Mitterrand, did, however, express his hope that an Arab-Israeli conference could be held this year. He also called on UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar to consider using Arab troops to enforce an eventual Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
Like their European counterparts, French leaders are deeply disappointed that the Baker-Aziz talks ended without any ``gesture'' from Iraq, as Mitterrand says, that could have opened up other negotiations. Given that, Mitterrand spent much of his press conference preparing the French public for war.
Signs of suspicion have begun surfacing in a few European capitals over what are viewed as France's separate diplomatic efforts.
A British official says there was some ``irritation'' over the visit of a close Mitterrand associate to Baghdad last week. The Dutch, who this week said they would place their three ships in the region under US command in case of war, are critical of France's individual initiatives at the same time that the French are promoting EC political union.
Recognizing ``mixed feelings'' about French efforts shared by some EC members, a spokesman for the Luxembourg government says, ``The [EC] presidency does not share those feelings. We agree with Mitterrand's attempts, because we see the situation is so grave that all must be done to impede Iraq from taking a suicidal attitude.''