WHEN the Khmer Rouge recently took to the radio waves to denounce France's view of the world as "demonic, stinking, abhorrent, disdained, and isolated," the joke around Paris was that the reputable Cambodian source omitted one important adjective for current French diplomacy - confused.
The diatribe comes as French President Francois Mitterrand readies for a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam in February, a visit the brutal insurgent Khmer Rouge sees as bolstering the two countries' governments.
But the joke about "confused" and contradictory diplomacy makes a much broader point about recent French initiatives, drawing specifically on France's recent mixed signals concerning the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and what some French were starting to call "Gulf War II."
"No one should question the difficulty of these two problems; they're both diplomatic minefields," says Frric Bozo, a security affairs analyst with the French International Relations Institute here. "But their sensitivity is all the more reason that internal coherence is necessary, and manifestly coherence is one attribute that has been lacking."
Eyebrows were first raised earlier this month when Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said France was ready to act - if necessary, alone - to liberate Serb-held prison camps in Bosnia. Within 48 hours Mr. Dumas's proposal had been shot down by other Cabinet members, including Prime Minister Pierre Bgovoy, who cautioned against "speaking lightly about war."
Then similar false notes sounded during the recent flurry of allied air attacks against Iraq. The French and British participated alongside the United States during the first raids, but in a later attack, the US acted alone.
Mr. Mitterrand's spokesman termed "appropriate" the US missile attack on a factory once used to build parts that could serve in building a nuclear bomb. Four days later, however, a government spokesman announced that Dumas had criticized the US action as "going beyond UN Security Council resolutions."
But that information was barely out when Dumas's spokesman announced that the foreign minister "did not confirm" having voiced any such opinion. The ministerial cacophony caused one French press analyst to lament that the country's diplomacy is "beginning to resemble a weathervane."
Observers variously blame the contradictions on a lack of regular consultation among France's highest officials; on leadership in power so long - nearly 12 years for Mitterrand - that it is getting careless; on a French aim to please both the US and Arab partners; even on a desire to "come out with something for everybody" before March legislative elections.
Foreign Ministry officials acknowledge there has been some "incoherence," but they emphasize what they see as France's constancy: its insistence, backed by action, on application of UN resolutions; its willing participation in UN peacekeeping operations; and its continuing engagement in the Persian Gulf.
These officials worry that one looming international conflict could leave France "isolated," to borrow a term from the Khmer Rouge. That issue is the Uruguay Round international trade talks, and France's threat to veto an accord if an agreement between the US and the European Community on farm trade isn't changed.
With France's European partners looking increasingly unwilling to shoot down an accord that could help restart a stagnant world economy, French diplomacy will have to muster all the coherence it can find to convince any neighbors willing to stand with it against international pressure for a trade agreement.