FRENCH President Jacques Chirac begins a two-day state visit to the United States Feb. 1 at what could be the best point in US-French relations since the 1781 battle of Yorktown.
Several key developments point to a revival in French-American cooperation. French and US troops are both engaged on the ground in Bosnia to implement a US- brokered peace plan signed in Paris. And France in December rejoined NATO's military committee after a 30-year absence.
On Jan. 29, President Chirac officially ended all French nuclear testing, after breaking a three-year moratorium last year with a series of six nuclear tests. Washington had expressed regret at the decision and hailed the tests' conclusion, saying it would help push toward a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty this year.
''Relations between the two countries have never been as good,'' says independent French Sen. Andre Maman, who represents French citizens living outside of France. ''We're stopping nuclear tests, and we're no longer worried about American military or economic influence.''
In other words, France now sees America's economic and military presence in Europe as an advantage, a shift made all the more dramatic by France's longstanding suspicions about American dominance in Europe. Since at least the 1920s, French peasants, craftsmen, and shopkeepers, who once defined the nation's political life, deeply resisted the threat to their way of life that American mass-production and economic competition represented.
In the 1960s, French President Charles de Gaulle pursued a politics of ''national grandeur'' designed to create French industries on a scale to compete with US giants. De Gaulle also pulled France out of NATO's military command and began an independent nuclear-weapons program. But the French decision in December to rejoin NATO's command signals France's willingness use its influence from a vantage point of cooperation with the US and other European countries.
Indeed, Chirac is expected to express during his visit ''the hopes of Europe and of France to redefine and balance the Atlantic alliance by building a European pillar of defense,'' according to a presidential spokesman. Last week, British and American officials met separately with French officials in Paris to define how such a European pillar might function.
France also is the world's fourth-largest economy and feels little of America's economic threat, with the significant exception of the so-called cultural invasion.
''The only problem is the American cultural invasion: CNN, Disney, films, and popular music,'' says Senator Maman. ''On that point, senators on the left and the right are in complete agreement. It touches an old fear for the French of being cut off from their identity.''
France has argued consistently for Europe-wide audiovisual quotas to limit the reach of American films. In January, France began enforcing a requirement that French radio stations broadcast at least 40 percent French music.
Recent Franco-American relations have not been without their glitches. Last February, France's top policeman, Charles Pasqua, summoned US Ambassador Pamela Harriman to his office to account for the activities of American spies who allegedly tried to bribe French officials into revealing details of tense negotiations over audiovisual quotas during GATT negotiations.
Five American nationals were subsequently expelled. But the ''spy flap'' was swept into the corner after Chirac came to power.
The last official state visit between French and American heads of state was in March 1984. The visit began badly: Then-President Mitterrand's name was misspelled (a missing ''r'') - an error often repeated by US officials during Mitterrand's 14 years in office.
Moreover, the meeting between Mitterrand and President Reagan had been formal and strained. The Feb. 1 meeting between Presidents Clinton and Chirac should go better. Chirac genuinely likes the US, and respects the American president, Elysee spokesmen say. (Mitterrand reportedly shared this assessment, once referring to Mr. Clinton as his ''socialist son.'')
Parts of an interview with Chirac on CNN's ''Larry King Live'' last October were rebroadcast in France. Many French were surprised that their president spoke fluent English - and that he had served sodas at Howard Johnson's restaurant in his youth.
On Jan. 31, Chirac will also address a joint session of Congress (in French). He will urge US lawmakers to not reduce US commitment to international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank, says a French presidential spokesman.
On Feb. 2, the French president travels to Illinois to address the Chicago Economic Club to encourage investment in France and promote French products. This time, he speaks in English.