THE resignation of France's defense minister this week places in center stage a question that has been nagging the French since August: What kind of relationship does France want with Arab countries, and how should it be pursued? French officials insist that France remains as committed as ever to close Arab ties and that its participation in the war is in part to guarantee it will have an important role to play in the region's future, alongside other world powers that do not have its tradition of a strong Arab policy.
The sight, however, of French flag burnings and anti-French placards in Arab streets has some analysts wondering how Arab countries will view the French in the postwar period. Other analysts, meanwhile, say the only effective Mediterranean policy France can have will be through the European Community, whose attention is on Eastern Europe.
The importance France gives to Arab relations played a determining role in what for months was viewed as its independent line in the Gulf crisis. France's clear alignment with the United States-led coalition since the war began, and its own air attacks against former privileged partner Iraq, has rankled some pro-Arab leaders, who say France is destroying a policy of close ties with the Arab world even as it destroys Iraqi targets.
It was this falling in step with what he considers ``America's war'' that led Jean-Pierre Chev`enement, a founding member of the France-Iraq friendship association, to resign as defense minister Tuesday. Mr. Chev`enement opposed sending French troops to Saudi Arabia, as well as France's vote in the United Nations Security Council for Iraq to leave Kuwait by Jan. 15.
In a brief letter to President Fran,cois Mitterrand, Chev`enement said that the ``logic of war,'' a term Mr. Mitterrand first used in August, ``risks driving us further each day from the objectives set by the United Nations.''
Chev`enement's resignation serves as a reminder of the current in French politics that is distrustful of a too-strong association with the US and that opposes strong emphasis on an Atlantic policy. For Chev`enement, who entered French administration in a colonial Algeria torn by its war for independence from France, France is foremost a Mediterranean country whose primary interest is in a strong Mediterranean, and thus Arab, policy.
Although a portion of the French public couldn't understand why Mitterrand held onto a defense minister who so openly opposed his approach to Iraq and the Gulf war, Mitterrand clearly preferred to keep Chev`enement under his control in the government than to see him free to express his views openly.
Some analysts now wonder if the Chev`enement view of a France that is betraying some of its most vital links will win growing support - here and in Arab countries - especially if the war drags on or takes a turn for the worse.
``The most jarring rupture effect will come with the ground battle,'' says R'emy Leveau, an Arab specialist at the Political Studies Institute here. ``Until the war started, France was perceived as holding a different line, and that was appreciated in a number of Arab countries,'' he says. ``Now, and especially in the Maghreb, France has lost much of its credibility.''
Already before the military battle began, Phillipe de Gaulle, the son of Charles de Gaulle and a French senator, voted against France's participation in the Gulf war on grounds that it violated France's Arab interests. It was President de Gaulle who traced the lines of French Arab policy after the 1967 Middle East war, distancing France from an Israel he considered a US dependent and moving France closer to Arab Mediterranean countries.
Among officials at the presidential palace and the Foreign Ministry, a two-point approach to Arab countries prevails: maintain contacts and guarantee a place at the settlement table for France to pursue the elements of regional security and development that it advocates.
``We are on the same wavelength concerning the war as a number of Arab countries,'' says a spokesman at the 'Elys'ee, ``and we are keeping the dialogue going with those countries that may not see things exactly as we do.''
The secretary-general of the Foreign Ministry visited several North African countries and Jordan this week. Michel Vauzelle, a French parliamentarian who visited Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in December with Mitterrand's blessings, was in Tunis on Wednesday.
French officials say France will continue to push for an international conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict as soon after the war as feasible - Mitterrand would like it to begin this year - and for a regional security organization that would take up arms control, among other issues.
The French are also eager to see stronger development programs for North African countries, whose economic difficulties and population growth continue to feed immigration, one of France's thorniest problems. The Foreign Ministry admits such initiatives will have to be developed through the European Community.
Analysts like Mr. Leveau, however, say that, despite the war, the southern Mediterranean region is unlikely to have Europe's undivided attention. Following the logic of proximity, Germany remains most concerned with events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This could lead, according to some analysts, to a Europe divided over the importance of addressing issues to its east and to its south.