THE French government, sticking hard by its commitment to the coalition in the Gulf, is playing tough with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on the question of a cease-fire in the five-week-old war. Despite speculation in the French press that the Soviet peace plan could turn into a wedge between France and the US, French officials insist that will not be the case.
``I don't believe there will be any disagreement between Bush and [French President Fran,cois] Mitterrand'' on the conduct of the war, says a senior official at the French presidential palace. A more likely difficulty the coalition could face, say French officials, would be a Soviet effort to take the plan to the United Nations Security Council if Iraq accepts it but the coalition does not.
France is an important barometer of coalition susceptibility to a positive response from the Iraqi leader to Soviet efforts to end hostilities. The French position, aligned with that of the United States and Britain, is unconditional retreat by Baghdad's forces from Kuwait, with no face-saving strings attached.
The coalition partners, on the other hand, will have plenty of conditions of their own, should Saddam say ``yes'' to Moscow's peace initiative.
French government sources say that, although they consider a positive response unlikely, the coalition partners are now most concerned that any agreement to pull out not be used by the Iraqis to stall for time or to redeploy.
On conditions needed for avoiding such a trick, and, on the other hand, on the pursuit of the war while the diplomatic effort continues, the French say there is continuing intense communication among the coalition partners against a backdrop of firm accord.
FRANCE awoke Wednesday to newspapers declaring a US ``rejection'' of Moscow's peace plan. But French government sources, noting that President Bush never used the word ``reject'' in commenting on the plan, say the US, French, and British leaders agreed that the Soviet plan, which none of them divulged, is insufficient.
Still, an unconditional ``yes'' from Saddam would suddenly pose questions that only recently have been seriously considered by the coalition governments: How long should the Iraqi retreat take? How would it be accomplished? How would it be controlled? What would become of the massive concentration of materiel?
Mr. Mitterrand is described as ``enormously distrustful'' of Saddam at this point. The French this week are quick to recall the 1988 cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war arranged by the UN: The Iraqis took advantage of it to regroup and launch a surprise offensive that took the Iraqi Army miles into Iran.
And although high-level French officials are making no public announcements in this vein, they privately agree with the US position that Saddam's removal from power would facilitate both the effort to liberate Kuwait and other postwar security and development arrangements in the Middle East.
With so much attention fixed on the war and the complications of the Soviet peace plan, the French government is calling little attention to postwar projects - partly because French officials recognize that is the area in which differences between France and its allies, especially the US, will eventually surface.
Significantly, however, French officials - especially those in Mitterrand's circle, who make French foreign policy - are paying little attention to the European Community, both because it has demonstrated its limits in the Gulf crisis, and because France's role in the postwar process would only be diluted in the Community context.