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Versailles summit -- 'toughest yet' -- ends in a standoff

The summit was largely a standoff.

President Reagan stood firm. So did President Mitterrand of France.

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Instead of getting precisely what they wanted, the seven major powers here were often forced to defer action, call for follow-up studies, or use artful language that allowed opposite interpretations.

The conference itself caught a glimmer of Gallic glory.

After the final tough afternoon of bargaining, the leaders relaxed back into the courtly charm of Versailles itself at a dinner for the heads of state. Retinues of attendants and musicians, in a heavily chandeliered hall, soothed the leaders' sensibilities made tense by efforts to make the conference a success.

Meanwhile literally thousands of aides and newsmen in the Orangerie, a large vaulted wing of the estate, worked into the night to explain and report the summit outcome while occasional bats passed overhead.

But the leaders would have to return to their homelands and bear a more prosaic fact: No direct action was taken on issues now besetting Western economies--high interest rates, recession, and unemployment. The American principle of fighting In effect, the US and France threatened to block each other from what each most wanted outright.

The United States wanted chiefly a specific, unified stand from the other world leaders to curb trade credits for the Soviet Union. It wanted this to add to its array of superpower pressures against the Soviets.

What it got was a statement calling for ''commercially prudent'' standards for Western trade credit to the USSR. The nations agreed to review periodically their East-West trade. Although they labeled the credit limit statement a victory, the US negotiators conceded that Western trade levels with the East could actually rise under its terms.

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Similarly, France got less than met the eye in its three pet projects--on North-South negotiations on aid for developing countries; on intervention on exchange rate swings; and on study of the effect of high technology on Western economies.

But there was enough give in statements of principle, if not the fine print, for the leaders to go home declaring themselves winners.

The British got a statement of ''complete solidarity'' on their Falklands ordeal. The Italians won inclusion in the currency intervention study. The Japanese were pleased to escape the conference with an agreement to take up later their agricultural trade differences with the US, and to discuss at the GATT session in November such issues as trade barriers in services and investments.

''It was a sign of the health of the group that they could attack the issues so directly,'' said one of the chief American negotiators. ''The tough issues were all addressed.''

The summitteers reported this year's session had been tougher and more bruising than previous summits.

And the negotiations were complicated by breaking foreign policy events in other parts of the world.

The Reagan foreign affairs team, on its first road tour away from North America, badly mishandled a UN vote on the Falklands casting a veto but subsequently indicating it should have been an abstention, switching a no vote to an abstention, and prompting a British official to label the American second thoughts ''duplicitous.'' The Reagan team responded more smoothly to the latest Mideast flare-up: setting up a Versailles operation center while appealing for a cease-fire.

Reagan wanted the summit, the first event in his 10-day European trip, which culminates in a NATO summit June 9 and 10, to show himself in a more moderate light, to offset earlier impressions of him in Europe as a fundamentalist cold warrior and free enterprise hard-liner.

Yet he came across as firmly set in his ways, at least in economic matters, while willing to listen to the views of others.

Reagan gave little actual ground on the issue that meant the most to the French: a US pledge to intervene against erratic swings in exchange rates. The seven nations agreed to a joint study of whether such intervention would prove worthwhile. But the US delegation clearly prejudged the outcome by saying its previous study of US dollar intervention showed that a country's policy on inflation made its currency vulnerable to swings. Intervention is useless, except in times of extreme crisis like the attempted shooting of a president, to correct the policy flaw. It also said there would likely be no change in US intervention actions, reserved for ''disorderly markets'' - a term left to individual nations to define.

On the North-South issue the US also held to its previous position that institutions like the World Bank would not be bypassed by casting ''global negotiations'' into the United Nations--an arena where the US would have far less control.

The Reaganites also undercut France's high-technology study by pointing out that an attempt to anticipate inventions during the Franklin Roosevelt era failed to foresee television, the jet airplane, and the ballpoint pen.

The most frustrating issue--failure of the Western economies to resist soaring interest rates, recession, and joblessness--was not addressed directly.

''What we most wanted,'' a Canadian negotiator said, ''was to achieve some easing of US interest rates. We were told in Ottawa by Reagan last summer that interest rates would drop by the end of the year. US interest rates are high at a time when inflation is low. You can gloss over this at Versailles, but our principal concern remains interest rates that smother growth.''

Last month Canada's unemployment soared to 10.2 from 9.6 percent the previous month.

To the Canadians, Japanese, and other participants, Reagan's emphasis on Soviet trade dangers cast the credit issue in the wrong terms and moved the conference away from more purely economic matters. Canada's trade with the USSR is mostly grain, for cash and not credit. Such trade for Canada and the US would not likely be affected by the Reagan stance on trade credits.

American officials say that Soviet trade abetted by government credits amounts to only $3 billion, or 10 perecent of the $30 billion trade. The amount of trade affected by the seven nations' agreement is small compared to the overall Soviet economic machine.

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