For centuries, the Pyrenees provided a dauntingly high barrier between France and Spain. Those peaks now seem much lower. At the end of the visit to Paris this week by Spain's King Juan Carlos, the two neighbors agreed on an important pact of cooperation. Signed with much fanfare at the Elys'ee Palace, it provides the first formal link on security and defense matters and establishes an annual summit, like those France holds with Britain, Italy, and West Germany.
The agreement was all the more remarkable because it was signed right after a major political crisis in Madrid, which resulted in the rancorous departure of both Finance Minister Miguel Boyer and Foreign Minister Fernando Mor'an L'opez from the government. In the past, such a cabinet shake-up would have provoked tremors about the solidity of Spanish democracy.
Most analysts feel the worst fallout from the political crisis would be a weakening of Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez's political popularity. Mr. Boyer, the architect of the government's austerity plan, comforted the business community. Mr. Mor'an, the architect of Spain's entry into the European Community (EC), comforted old-time socialists reticent about the country's ties to the Atlantic Alliance.
Their departure may make it more difficult for Mr. Gonz'alez to continue his tough economic policies and to win next year's planned referendum on maintaining Spain's NATO membership.
But no one is questioning the strength of Spanish democracy and the country's growing acceptance in Europe. King Juan Carlos's trip to Paris underscored both of these points.
When Juan Carlos first visited the French capital in 1976, he received a reserved welcome. Editorialists here asked if this wasn't the deferential man who had walked in the shadow of Generalissimo Fransisco Franco for so many years. Dull and fawning, some said. Others even called him a traitor for bending to the will of the dictator. One headline summed up the reaction: ``Juan Carlos the Cretin.''
Since then, Juan Carlos has surprised all the critics by skillfully easing Spain into a democracy. This time the Parisian editorialists admired his wavy blond hair, his full blue eyes, and his athletic 6-foot-2 inch frame. A model matinee monarch, in short, wise and not least of all, courageous. The new headline read, ``Juan the Brave.''
These public perceptions are important. For all too long, the French have looked down upon Spain as a primitive, underdeveloped country, full of religious and political fanatics, and dominated by the blood of the bullfight.
In return, Spaniards heaped all their problems on France. It was France's fault that there was a Basque terrorist problem. And it was French obstinance which held up Madrid's application to the EC.
The last year has removed much of the reason for these complaints. French President Franois Mitterrand braved disapproval from French farmers to actively support Spanish membership to the EC which culminated in last month's emotional ceremony in Madrid celebrating Spain's forthcoming entry into the organization.
Even Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac, long a foe of Spanish entry into the EC, told Juan Carlos this week that he now ``ardently wishes the political integration of Spain in the European Community.''
President Mitterrand also has braved domestic displeasure on the Basque issue. After years of granting refuge to Spanish Basque refugees suspected of terrorism in the French Basque country just north of the Pyrenees, Mitterrand finally approved the first extradition of Basque suspects to Madrid last September.
Admittedly, some reticence remains on both sides. Spanish officials complain in private that France has returned only low-level terrorists and continues to refuse extradition of Basque chiefs. And Spain's feelings of inferiority towards France could be accentuated if EC membership results in a flood of French industrial imports.
Similarly, the French government still fears that cheap fruits and vegetables coming from Spain will provoke violence by French farmers. And instead of emphasizing extraditions, French officials wish Madrid would emphasize a political settlement with the Basques.
During Juan Carlos's visit, at least, these potential problems were overlooked. President Mitterrand hailed ``the renewed friendship'' between the two countries. Juan Carlos replied in equally glowing terms, saying his visit represented ``a new era.''
``The impression of friendship I have received opens a new era in French-Spanish relations,'' the King said, ``and as such marks a new stage in the construction of Europe.''