FRENCH leadership may seem an oxymoron in a century when German tanks rolled through Paris to conquer it and American tanks to free it. But France today can claim Europe's toughest ruler, one who has no qualms about telling America what Europe wants.
That says as much about other Western countries as it does about France. ''I'm not sure the French really want to lead Europe; it's more that they're filling a vacuum,'' says Simon Sarfati, director of European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.
''This may be the most significant period in Western Europe in 40 years,'' Mr. Sarfati adds. ''The nature of US-European relations is very fragile.''
Yet neither the sedate German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, nor Britain's beleaguered Prime Minister John Major, has taken charge. ''The Germans have history as an obstacle, and the British assume that the way to be 'loud' is to have tea in Washington,'' Sarfati says.
That leaves ''being loud,'' as he puts it, to France. And new President Jacques Chirac is using a megaphone. Despite some recent bruisings, notably over his decision to resume nuclear testing, Mr. Chirac has the advantage of a fresh political mandate after May elections. ''There are several issues Chirac is raising, with a French accent, but nonetheless a European tone,'' Sarfati says.
The hottest security issue for Europe today is the crisis in its backyard - the Balkans. Many Europeans say the US Congress doesn't know what it is doing, Sarfati suggests, in trying to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. Like many observers, he says that would bring ''a lot of body bags'' by triggering a United Nations withdrawal from Bosnia - with the help of NATO and 25,000 US ground troops. ''It's not going to be a clean extraction,'' Sarfati says.
A moral stand
European countries with UN peacekeepers favor beefing up the UN operation instead of a pullout. Here, too, France has gone furthest out on a limb. Chirac is ''taking a moral stand on Bosnia, saying that this kind of inhumanity can't be tolerated, and trying to force the West to take a stand,'' says Gayden Thompson, director of the program of NATO and European Security at the Atlantic Council of the United States.
Not that there hasn't been some French ambivalence on Bosnia. When two Frenchmen were killed on the same day in Bosnia, Chirac made some tough statements to the Bosnian Serbs - in line with his reputation for sounding off when he thinks the occasion warrants.
On July 23, loud detonations were heard near the Bosnian Serb headquarters in Pale, and much of the world was ready to believe France had carried out a retaliatory raid. The French denied this, saying the apparent explosions were the sonic booms of a reconnaissance plane. But some evidence remains there was a bomb.
It comes down to money
The second beef France has with America is money - specifically the weak US dollar. Chirac made unemployment, persistently hovering around 12 percent in France, his central campaign issue. His ability to put people to work is expected to make or break his presidency.
French and other European corporate leaders and officials say the dollar is being manipulated downward for American corporate advantage, according to Sarfati.
''They can't sell an Airbus when the franc is below five'' to the dollar, as it has been lately, he says. ''High-tech industries are hurt the most because their contracts are denominated in dollars.''
Lastly, Europeans are increasingly uneasy about NATO, the trans-Atlantic alliance that binds America to Europe. After the collapse of European communism, the US devised the Partnership for Peace program to help Eastern Europe - and now Russia too - cooperate with NATO. The Germans argue that the process has to move faster, and that European security depends on expanding NATO eastward quickly.
The French, meanwhile, ''would rather rethink NATO,'' Sarfati says. This is something they have been doing at least since 1966, when Charles de Gaulle pulled French forces out of NATO's integrated military command. France is looking into boosting other security structures like the Western European Union, which could let Europe act in some situations without American say-so.
Despite some cracks in the Franco-US friendship, other observers, such as Helmut Sonnenfelt at the Brookings Institution see the relationship as ''fairly solid.''
He observes that the US has had a fairly low-key response to French nuclear testing in the Pacific, which is drawing sharp criticism from Pacific nations and has hurt Chirac's approval ratings at home.
Dr. Sonnenfelt contrasts today's quiet cooperation with France on at least some nuclear issues with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's harsh criticism of the French nuclear program during the Kennedy administration. ''Some of the nastiness in tone and the carping has subsided,'' he says.