FOR the 100 hours of the Gulf war's ground phase, the French followed the progress of operations on televised military maps which, using national flags to indicate positions, unabashedly placed the red, white, and blue banner of France alongside the Stars and Stripes. Until recently, this close association with the United States - and on an Arab battlefield, no less - would have been hard for many French to swallow. Since Charles de Gaulle pulled France from NATO's integrated command in 1966 and defined a French-Arab policy designed to counterbalance superpower presence in the region, people here have been proud of what they call ``the French difference.''
With the war over, the French will be busy trumpeting that ``difference'' once again.
But these days the French are worried about their country's place in the world. And in that context, France's wartime juxtaposition with the world's remaining superpower couldn't have happened at a better time.
As German reunification and the fits and starts of European political integration rattle France's sense of its own international stature, news of long telephone conversations between the White House and the 'Elys'ee Palace provide reassurance.
As doubts persist over long-term prospects for France's seat among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - an exclusive body French leaders refer to, with no little satisfaction, as les cinq grands (the Big Five) - seeing the French flag shoulder to shoulder with that of the US permits a nearly audible national sigh of relief: ``You see,'' it says, ``we have kept our rank.''
President Fran,cois Mitterrand said for months that, if it came to war, France would take part to ensure its place at the postwar negotiating table. More important was the hint that France would fight to remind the world who it is - and why it sits on the Council in the first place.
French soldiers were in the Gulf, Mr. Mitterrand said, because of ``a certain conception of France's duty at the heart of the international community.'' France ``must hold its position.''
Those words were spoken even as other European leaders suggested the time had come to recognize an evolution in the weight of international powers. German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said Germany should have its place among the Security Council's permanent members. Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt advocated a rotation of European seats. Italian Foreign Minister Gianni de Michelis agreed.
French response was swift. Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said France ``would not agree'' to any redrawing of the Security Council. As a ``victorious power'' in World War II, he asserted, France retained its world rank.
Not everyone around the world is convinced, however. A recent poll shows that, although 72 percent of the French consider their country a major power, a majority of Americans, Germans, Britons, and Israelis do not.
But that poll was taken before the four-day ground war, when the French flag began moving north on countless military maps, deep into the Iraqi desert.
To take advantage of their bolstered stature, the French will emphasize the UN's postwar role, since that is where their power is most evident. The coalition and Iraqi signatures were barely dry on the cease-fire agreement signed Sunday when Mitterrand proposed that the heads of state of Security Council countries meet to discuss issues facing the Middle East.