While Ronald Reagan expresses his readiness for a summit meeting with Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, President Mitterrand of France is off to Moscow this week to try to resume the long-interrupted dialogue between Paris and the Kremlin.
The fact that Mr. Mitterrand is making the trip at all marks a notable shift in his conduct of French foreign policy. After refusing top-level contacts with the Kremlin since 1981, the French leader thinks it is time for the West to start talking to the Soviets, and is taking the initiative to try to get East-West dialogue going.
The difficulty, French officials fully realize, is that Mr. Chernenko and his colleagues may be in no mood to make the kind of compromises which would render dialogue worthwhile, particularly so long as United States-Soviet nuclear arms talks remain broken off.
As a result, Mitterrand's visit to the Soviet Union June 20-23 looks like being the toughest foreign trip he has faced in his three-year presidency. Whatever the outcome, it should give Washington and the other Western allies a better guide to whether Mr. Reagan's statement last week that he was ready to meet and talk at any time with Mr. Chernenko will be worth translating into practice.
Under Gen. Charles de Gaulle and his conservative successors, France prided itself on its relationship with the Soviet Union. French presidents saw themselves as having closer links with the Kremlin than other Western leaders. On occasion, they thought they could play an intermediary role between East and West.
Mitterrand criticized his predecessor, Valery Giscard d'Estaing for traveling to Warsaw in 1980 to meet Leonid Brezhnev, soon after the invasion of Afghanistan, by dubbing Giscard ''le petit telegraphiste de Varsovie'' (the little Warsaw errand boy).
When he took office in 1981, Mitterrand changed that approach. While taking four Communist ministers into his government at home, he adopted a much tougher line toward the Soviet Union than his predecessors. In particular, he strongly backed the installation of US Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe, threw his weight behind the conservative West German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and expressed his concern about neutralism and pacifism in Western Europe. Added to his strong disapproval of the continued Soviet presence in Afghanistan and martial law in Poland, Mitterrand's attitude put Franco-Soviet relations in the deep freeze.
What has now changed, in the French President's view, is that the Pershing II and cruise missiles are actually being installed. Soviet attempts to block their deployment have failed, for the time being at least. This, Mitterrand believes, has changed the situation and created an atmosphere in which contacts can be resumed, without any danger of the Soviets taking a readiness to talk for a readiness to compromise on European security.
There is also a strong national reason for Mitterrand wanting to resume top-rank contacts with the Soviets. The French feel, as a matter of principle, that they should play an active role in world diplomacy, making their voice heard on all sides.
Mitterrand had to ensure, before going to Moscow, that he had reassured Washington about his solid attachment to the Western alliance.
Having done that successfully, he can now revive the Gaullist tradition of a French president who makes his views known to the Soviets directly, as well as through France's allies.
Whether Chernenko will take much heed of what Mitterrand has to say is another matter. Soviet observers in Paris expect few concrete results from the visit. One Soviet official even attributed Mitterrand's decision to go to Moscow to domestic electoral calculations.
The Soviets are likely to press the French to allow their nuclear weapons to be lumped in with American strength in any resumed Geneva arms talks. Mitterrand has always refused even to consider doing that.
On the Middle East, the likelihood of direct French involvement in resolution of the Lebanese crisis seems to have been put to one side by the withdrawal from Beirut of French troops, together with the rest of the four-nation multinational force.
The French will be hoping for agreement on practical measures to cut their trade deficit with the Soviet Union, but they have recently found Moscow has been a harder bargainer than in the past.
Mitterrand's main goal this week is to make clear to the Soviets that the West remains firm on the missile issue and that any new relationship has to be based on acceptance of the presence of those missiles on European soil.