German leaders often come to Paris. But when Erich Honecker began a 48-hour visit Thursday, it was a first for an East German, not West German, leader. Mr. Honecker's visit holds a powerful practical and symbolic importance. Practically, it represents another step forward in the budding East-West d'etente. Symbolically, it marks an important step for the East Germans in their drive to gain international respectability for their country.
Until now, none of the three Western powers responsible for Berlin's special status had received an East German head of state. This barrier now lowered, East German officials suggest Honecker eventually could travel to London and Washington.
The East Germans see themselves playing a role in the renewed East-West disarmament negotiations. Just before his arrival in France, Honecker sent a letter to West German leader Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Honecker's letter outlined his proposals for a triple ``zero option'' which would involve the removal of all short-range missiles with a range less than 500 kilometers (310 miles) from the continent.
Such an idea attracts the West Germans - and horrifies the French. The West Germans are eager to remove the short-range missiles, which could fall on their own territory in wartime. The French are concerned a denuclearized Europe would leave the Atlantic Alliance open to blackmail by superior Warsaw Pact conventional forces.
From the French perspective, a meeting with Honecker is a reminder they must not forget Eastern Europe. For the last few years, debate here has centered on the future of Western Europe and the Common Market. French officials want to remind their public - and their allies - they, too, can play a role behind the Iron Curtain.
Economic contacts between the two countries are stronger than one might expect. France ranks as East Germany's second Western trading partner - well behind West Germany - with the total volume of exchanges annually reaching about $1.3 billion.
No spectacular agreements are expected to be signed on the present trip. Honecker will meet with French President Francois Mitterrand and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, along with leaders of the main French political parties. Both sides merely are expected to announce their intention to increase economic exchanges.