Courtesy Reuters

France's New Realism

François Mitterrand, halfway through his term of office, is pursuing a French foreign policy that is more than a footnote to the career of Charles de Gaulle. Making full use of the presidential authority set up by de Gaulle, Mitterrand has been neither inspired nor bound by the Gaullist conception of France's place in the world. Fifteen years after leaving office, de Gaulle still casts a long shadow over France, and even more over perceptions of France. But Mitterrand's responses to the international problems France faces in the 1980s are very different from those of de Gaulle in the 1960s. They reflect a very different idea of what France is in the world and what it can claim to be.

There have been significant continuities, of course, in Mitterrand's policies. Like any other French leader, he has not overlooked what his foreign minister, Claude Cheysson, called "a continuity that goes beyond majorities" rooted in the geography and history of the country. Nor has he had any reason to dispense with the policies or rhetoric of his Fifth Republic predecessors (as, for example, with respect to France's independence)which are still serviceable in international or domestic politics. But the most important of his continuities have been, not with de Gaulle or Georges Pompidou, but with former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, in matters where Giscard himself differed most from de Gaulle (as in relations with the United States). Where Mitterrand has differed most strikingly from Giscard (as in relations with the Soviet Union), the change has not been in the direction of Gaullism.

Mitterrand's new course is not easy to label. "Gaullist" does not fit. But it cannot be called "socialist" by any plausible deduction from the scattered heritage of French socialism with respect to foreign policy. Perhaps "realism" is as good a brief description as we can find of French foreign policy since mid-1981. It suggests Mitterrand's considerable ability to adopt policies which link France's permanent interests with reasonable effectiveness

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