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Old unity of West Europe threatened by French foreign policy

As was evident at the meeting of European Community leaders in Athens last week, the EC is coming apart at the seams. Much of the blame for its troubles is being laid squarely at the doorstep of France's President, Francois Mitterrand.

Both friends and rivals of France see the French President's foreign policy as ''shifty,'' ''contradictory,'' and ''self-defeating.''

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Occasionally it is welcomed by the White House. And its nationalistic overtones even assure the Socialist government of popular support in France in the short term.

Seen by experts from abroad - allied and communist as well as nonaligned - French foreign policy is, in the words of several senior European, African, and Asian officials, ''an unmitigated disaster.''

According to many ambassadors reflecting various ideologies, and to officials who talked privately to the Monitor in a dozen capitals, France under Mitterrand has:

* Lost its autonomy vis-a-vis the United States and, by repercussion, vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

* Considerably weakened Western Europe as an autonomous, significant voice and power in world affairs.

* Deprived Western Europe of the political drive and glue that once held it together.

''Mitterrand's fundamental mistake was to dilute - in fact if not in name - the intimate Franco-German partnership, launched by de Gaulle and Adenauer and brilliantly carried out by Giscard d'Estaing and Schmidt,'' a veteran West European diplomat says.

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''Italy and Great Britain, for various reasons, sentimental as well as material, are more attracted by the United States than by the Franco-German twin leadership. But as members of the EC, with their economies tightly linked to it, they were obliged, kicking and screaming, to follow the Franco-German locomotive ,'' he added.

A key EC official comments: ''United, France and Germany carried more weight than resulted simply by adding one and the other. They created a West European geopolitical might which inspired respect from the United States, the Soviet Union, the third world.''

Under the Schmidt-Giscard alliance, Western Europe formed a buffer zone between the United States and the Soviet Union, and a vital link between the industrial and the developing nations.

Since France and Germany have gone their individual ways, Western Europe has largely lost its credibility as an independent force.

''As a result, we now have between East and the West, between North and the South, a double abyss and an almost total lack of productive communication,'' says the ambassador of a third-world country that is sympathetic to France.

Mitterrand's foreign policy was based, originally, on two foundations:

* An East-West axis. A strong pro-Western and anti-Soviet posture put France squarely behind the United States and NATO.

* A North-South axis. A pro-third-world stance and a desire to keep the third world out of East-West rivalries put France at odds with the Reagan administration.

''The trouble with this double bind is that most of the time it is impossible to separate the East-West and the North-South aspects of a problem,'' admits a French diplomat.

''To some extent France is sympathetic to Angola, to Vietnam, to Nicaragua, even to Libya. In its North-South perspective, it wants to improve relations with these and other 'leftist' countries. In its East-West perspective, it must avoid coming into conflict with the United States, which sees these countries strictly through an East-West looking-glass,'' he said.

A key Mitterrand adviser admits some of the criticism, but says that a Socialist government needed to assure the middle class that France was to be a staunch ally of the US and fiercely opposed to the Soviet Union.

The net result is a series of balancing acts and shifts:

In dispatching troops to Lebanon, France stands shoulder to shoulder with the United States and Israel against Syria and the Soviet Union. It has attempted to punish the pro-Iranian factions presumed to be responsible for the recent suicide attacks against US and French military headquarters in Beirut. But at the same time it has tried to save and protect Yasser Arafat and is sponsoring a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire between the PLO's warring factions.

It is supplying Iraq with Super-Etendard jets and at the same time sponsoring a UN resolution calling for an Iraq-Iran ceasefire.

It dispatched troops to Chad, presumably to stop Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi from threatening French-speaking African countries south of Chad (a tough, East-West move), but did so too late to prevent Qaddafi from taking over northern Chad (in a desire to keep good relations with Libya and to protect French economic interests in that country).

''When all is said and done, and when one looks at what Mitter-rand does rather than at what he says, his East-West policy is based on concrete moves whereas his North-South policy is made mostly of posturing and of speeches,'' a leading third-world diplomat says.

In the North-South area, some diplomats point to: Mitterrand's moving pro-third-world speech in Mexico two years ago, his trip to New York last September to take part in a nonaligned summit, his invitation to Fidel Castro to visit Paris, and his verbal support to the Contadora group's efforts toward a peaceful solution of the Central American problems.

''These moves, these words, cost little and Reagan can live with them,'' says the same source.

In the East-West area, they put Mitterrand's January speech in Bonn urging the West Germans to be firm and to deploy the Pershing II missiles, his frequent repetitions of this tough stance, and his icy posture vis-a-vis Moscow. (By cutting himself off almost completely from the Soviet Union, he has deprived France of significant diplomatic leverage, according to several conservative-minded French diplomats in Paris.)

To some extent, Mitterrand's tough policy is not surprising. It has its roots in the old French Socialist Party of the 1950s, a party with a pro-American and anti-Soviet posture as well as a traditional French nationalism.

At the same time, by appearing to stand side by side with Reagan, Mitterrand hopes to calm the fears of those in France who objected to the presence of Communist ministers in his Cabinet.

Finally, by engaging in interventionism in Africa and in the Middle East, he is following an old rule that ''when the economy hurts, when people at home are frustrated, divert their attention and focus on 'victories' abroad,'' says one diplomat.

Strangely, despite all the pro-American policies of Mitterrand, there is little love for him at the White House. His initiatives are welcome, but ideologically he remains suspicious in the eyes of hard-boiled Reaganites.

''Mitterrand is so afraid to be seen by the French middle class as taking his orders from Moscow that he ends up taking them from Washington,'' complains a Gaullist-minded French diplomat posted in Western Europe.

In the third world, one country has reasons to be satisfied with Mitterrand: Algeria.

Franco-Algerian relations have dramatically improved under Mitterrand. France has gone a long way to satisfy Algerian expectations in economic matters.

Otherwise, however, Mitterrand's North-South policies as they have unfolded, are a far cry from the generous, audacious plans that he has announced. The resignation last year of Jean-Pierre Cot, as ''minister of cooperation'' between France and the third world, a true believer in North-South dialogue, dramatized the fact that Mitterand's third world policies have become mostly rhetorical.

Mitterrand's activism in foreign affairs may flatter his nationalistic ego at times but is in fact fundamentally different from de Gaulle's, according to French and West European diplomats.

''De Gaulle did not seek short-term nationalistic satisfaction. Rather, by linking France and Germany closely to one another and by building Western Europe on top of this Franco-German cornerstone, he gave his own country a strength that it did not possess by itself and assured it of a structural independence which it could not hope to enjoy by virtue of its demographic, economic, geographic size alone,'' an observer says.

Others single out three grave negative consequences resulting directly from Mitterrand's foreign policy:

* West Germany, no longer tightly hooked to the West by its ''marriage'' to France, is sliding toward neutralism and left to the natural attraction of a distant but not impassable reunification with East Germany.

* Western Europe is in deep disarray.

The force that pulled it together (Franco-German political will) being now absent, hundreds of financial, commercial, and agricultural quarrels are tearing it apart. Many observers question its ability to survive. In the past when West Europeans met, they discussed the Middle East as well as North-South and East-West relations from their particular vantage points. Now they argue about tomatoes, butter, and spare parts for helicopters.

''This,'' a US diplomat says, ''is not a welcome development for the United States. Whereas the Schmidt-Giscard-led Europe was a headache to us at times, the breaking up of Western Europe is definitely not in our interest.''

* France traditionally had a foreign policy that followed a fixed strategy and was largely immune from swings in public opinion.

Under Mitterrand it has for the first time begun to resemble US foreign policy in the sense that: (a) it is directed from the Elysee Palace (the President) rather than from the Quai d'Orsay (Foreign Ministry) and thus linked to domestic considerations and short-term goals and, (b) it largely reacts to events rather than anticipating them, according to French sources by no means hostile to socialism.

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