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US-French Relations Hit Rocks Over European Defense

FRANCO-AMERICAN relations, spiced with rivalry and jousting even in the best of times, are traversing a particularly stormy period as differences escalate over a number of international issues of central importance to both countries.

The discord is acute over such topics as international trade relations and European security.

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Yet the common source of tension in all the problem issues, from the French point of view, is a fundamental mistrust among American officials of the project for a strong, united Europe with, as one highly placed French official says, "a certain autonomy."

"It's as if this European construction were designed to antagonize the Americans...." says Jean Musitelli, chief spokesman for French President Francois Mitterrand. "But for us it's the condition for any real common progress. We want the Americans to understand that the alternative is a weak, unstable Europe, a Yugoslavia force 10, and no one wants that."

For the French, a stronger military role for Europeans on their own continent is a necessity as the United States pursues a partial military disengagement from Europe. They do not question US supremacy in trans-Atlantic security arrangements, they say, but insist it is in both sides' interest if Europe prepares now for a reduced US presence.

And if relations between the US and France are particularly rough now, they say, it is because France is the only European country to speak up frankly about European ambitions.

Also playing a role, however, is a series of recent incidents that only aggravated relations that just last year, at the end of the Gulf war, appeared close.

* First, Mr. Mitterrand declared in April that the Los Angeles riots were the result of President Bush's conservative social policies. Recognizing that the commentary was not very diplomatic, Mitterrand quickly used a subsequent interview to laud Mr. Bush's leadership - a gesture to which Bush responded with a personal note.

* But then a May visit to Washington by Foreign Minister Roland Dumas went particularly badly: Meetings between Mr. Dumas and US Secretary of State James Baker III, who are known to feel little warmth for each other, were cut short.

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* Most recently, the French were stung by Mr. Baker's choice of the very day that France and Germany formally declared their ambition to form a military "Eurocorps" - the embryo of an eventual European army - to declare sanctions against Serbia. For Paris, the initiative was an attempt to ridicule European security ambitions.

"We're not so naive as to believe it was that particular day that the Americans discovered the horrors of war in Yugoslavia," says one French official.

Such aggravations aside, analysts say a basic difference in vision for Europe's security can't help but continue to cause tensions between the US and France. But they say the two allies should be able to take steps to reassure one another within what will remain a fundamental difference.

"There will be no possibility for eradicating the difference in visions over the long term," says Frederic Bozo, a European security specialist with the French Institute for Foreign Relations. "But that basic difference should be manageable in the medium term." While France could never return to NATO's integrated military command without betraying its ambitions for Europe, he says, France could take steps such as rejoining NATO's Defense Planning Committee to show it is sincere when it declares its desir e to see NATO remain strong.

Another step will be - rather than cutting meetings short - to keep channels of dialogue open. In that vein, the French are still hoping that Mitterrand's invitation to Bush to visit Paris during his July trip to Europe will receive a favorable response.

French officials admit, however, that with Bush in a troublesome electoral period, and with French-US disagreements such as farm trade holding domestic political weight, it may be next year before relations between the two countries experience better days.

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