TWO hundred and four years ago today a mob in Paris stormed a prison, the Bastille, and began the French Revolution. A decade earlier, France's royal regime, for its own geopolitical reasons, had supported American colonists in their revolt against the British. Over the intervening centuries, the two nations, although both born in revolution, have followed different courses. Relations have been close - France gave the Statue of Liberty in 1876 - but often troubled. In 1993, significant issues, primarily relating to security and trade, still cause divisions and require delicate diplomacy on both sides.
In the aftermath of the cold war, France believes the time has come for greater European leadership in the continent's security and favors increasing the military importance of the Western European Union. The French attach more importance to the Conference on European Security and Cooperation (CSCE) than do the Americans. The advent of a conservative government in Paris is likely to strengthen this tendency. The United States continues to see NATO as the bulwark of the defense of the Atlantic Community. The Bush administration opposed policies not based on NATO; the Clinton administration appears, until now, less concerned, but differences with France remain.
In the trade area, France, which opposes reducing farm subsidies, is seen as a major obstacle to a completion of the Uruguay Round of world trade negotiations. The US fears subsidized European competition in the aerospace field and sees France as one of the principal advocates of such subsidies. The French feel Americans do not understand France's internal problems and call into question US trade practices they consider protectionist.
It will not be easy to resolve basic tensions between the two nations. The government in Paris faces rising unemployment, militant resistance to change among its farmers, growing internal problems relating to immigration, and disappointment over the diminishing cohesion in the European Community. Washington confronts internal debates over the future US role in European security and strong domestic resistance to further trade concessions.
Nevertheless, many issues that have caused serious tensions have been resolved or forgotten. The US long ago accepted Charles de Gaulle's withdrawal of France from the military function of NATO. In the time since, French forces have cooperated closely with the US and quietly coordinated their plans with NATO. French troops fought side by side with Americans in the Gulf war.
French fears of US multinational corporations, symbolized by "Le Defi Americain" (The American Challenge) by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in 1967, appear to have subsided, and US companies are prominent on the business scene. The US boycott of French goods that followed France's refusal to cooperate in the American raid on Libya in 1986 has ended.
The important role that the French and their government play in many parts of the world is recognized. Although many Americans were at one time critical of the close ties France insisted on keeping with its former African colonies, the French role in Africa is now generally seen as a substantial contribution to the stability and development of the 18 Francophone countries. French military personnel have shown extraordinary bravery under the United Nations banner in protecting relief convoys against impos sible odds in Bosnia. French citizens, in such organizations as Doctors Without Borders, have been in the forefront of humanitarian efforts.
To many US officials in the post-World War II period, French policies and actions were exasperating. France appeared constantly out of step with the rest of the Western alliance. To the French, American views at times seemed overly aggressive, if not naive. Governments in Paris believed French policy was keeping East-West tensions low by diplomatic approaches to the Soviet Union. More recently, the French feel that the US gives too little weight to the efforts France has made to accommodate itself to new
circumstances in Europe, including a unified Germany.
The France that celebrates Bastille Day today is proud and individualistic, qualities that Americans can understand. Many of its artistic and technological contributions are the envy of others. Its revolution, like the American, established concepts of human dignity and rights that now permeate other societies. Throughout the two intervening centuries, its aims and those of the US have been more parallel than divergent. France and its people deserve an American salute on their national day.