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 to an international environment over which he has, by his admission, only limited control.

The first rule of realism is that policies are not followed mindlessly, but are modified or discarded if they fail to produce the desired results, or if the circumstances they were devised to deal with change. Mitterrand, at the beginning of the fourth year of his presidency, made at least two significant policy shifts. He at last established personal contact with the Soviet leadership, and began to talk with new emphasis of Europe as "a force for peace and balance between the superpowers." For his predecessors, a privileged French-Soviet relationship and efforts to lead Western Europe were policy staples. For him these issues had been conspicuously muted-until now.

It is too soon to know whether this represents a mid-course tactical correction or the beginning of a more substantial reorientation of policy. The answer will depend on Mitterrand's judgment as to whether the international context is moving into a phase which calls for policies different from those of his first three years. But whatever his choices, they will be based not on some hallowed body of policy precedent but on his calculation of the distribution of forces in today's world and, particularly, of the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Now, as always since World War II, the core of French policy attention must be the superpowers.


Perhaps the single most striking feature of French foreign policy under Mitterrand has been its constantly affirmed concern about Soviet power in Europe and the coolness of its approach to relations with the Soviet Union. This was not unexpected in light of the attitude of the Socialist Party-and of French intellectual and public opinion-toward the Soviet Union through the 1970s. But the persistence and vigor of this French policy have been remarkable, not least because it has run parallel to American policy preoccupations under Ronald Reagan. Both the United States and the Soviet Union would have preferred Giscard's reelection in 1981. But Russian expectations of Mitterrand's behavior proved to be more accurate than American.

Giscard, for example, tried to limit the damage to East-West relations caused by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or at least to assert France's independence and his own leadership, by meeting Brezhnev in Warsaw in May 1980. This gesture was not only ineffective but was unpopular in France. Mitterrand's policy has been very different: that French relations with the Russians could not be intimate, or even normal, while Soviet troops remained in Afghanistan. With that, Mitterrand publicly threw out the window the once cherished, if tattered, concept of a privileged relationship with the Soviet Union. Trade, scientific and other relations have been maintained, but political contacts have been few, cold and unproductive. Mitterrand apparently believed that going through the motions of sterile conversations with the Russians would not add much to France's stature or influence.

The change from what Le Monde called the "serenity" of Pompidou and Giscard toward the Soviet Union has been popular in France. What did Mitterrand lose if, as a consequence of his policy toward the Soviet Union, the sanctified Gaullist vision of an independent Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals receded ever farther into the middle distance? He lost the opportunity to assert France's leadership in pursuit of that great goal. Apparently Mitterrand has found this tolerable. No doubt, of course, he would prefer to see a loosening up of the international system, particularly in Europe, which would give France more scope to pursue its own interests and display its leadership. But he faces a situation very different from that of the 1960s, the dawn of détente, and he has seen no reason to deny that fact. He did not use the occasion of his trip to Moscow last June to revive the Gaullist vision or suggest that France had a mission to speak for a Europe between the superpowers. His objectives were more defensive, more national.

De Gaulle believed that France's interest would be better served in a multipolar than a bipolar world. At least from 1963 on, he worked to loosen the two-bloc system he confronted, in order to weaken the hold of the two superpowers on France, Europe and the rest of the world. In particular, he took every opportunity to assert French non-dependence on the American "hegemony," whose domination of the West hindered France's assertion of its status as a major power in control of its own affairs and influential with other countries.

Mitterrand's policies toward the Soviet Union and the United States have not left him much room, nor does he seem to have much inclination, to make loosening of the two blocs in Europe a serious policy objective or even a distant goal, however much he might welcome movement in that direction as a Frenchman and a socialist. But what he is not able to pursue as a policy he chooses not to talk about as a policy goal. A man who can refer in a matter-of-fact way, as he has done, to "the two powers that dominate the world" does not sound like one who feels compelled either to deny the facts of life in order to exaggerate the importance of his own country or to try to raise the consciousness of others against that undesirable state of affairs. In this most central area of relations with the superpowers, Mitterrand has been remarkably un-Gaullist in style as well as substance.

He showed this early in a sharp break with his predecessor's policy toward the Atlantic Alliance's decision to deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles (INF) in Europe. The Giscard government had expressed no official opinion about the matter, on the ground that France was not a member of the Alliance's military arm and, as an independent nuclear power, should not advise others about their nuclear weapons policies. Mitterrand, on the other hand, denounced the Soviet military buildup in Europe even before he took office and has not ceased to do so since. Peace, he has said, depends not on pacifism but on the balance of forces. The East-West military balance had to be restored, in Europe by the deployment of the planned missiles, globally by the American military buildup. Mitterrand preached this to the point of intervening in the West German election campaign, on his visit to the F.R.G. in January 1983, to urge the voters in effect to reject the Social Democratic Party and choose a government that would go forward with the INF deployments.

The need for a Western military buildup has been a much more insistent, even obsessive, theme with Mitterrand than arms control. Socialist France has not tried to facilitate a European nuclear arms agreement by offering to let its own nuclear force be factored into the negotiations, as the Soviet Union has insisted. One reason for Mitterrand's belated establishment of contact with the Soviet leadership probably was to make sure that they understood this French policy when and if U.S.-Soviet INF negotiations resume. No doubt he left the same message in Washington three months before he went to Moscow.

The French government's overriding concern with the long-term Soviet threat in Europe not only has precluded it even from talking about the dissolution of the blocs there as a policy goal, but obviously brings it into a remarkable alignment with the Reagan Administration. Not all French leaders have been as enthusiastic about present American leadership as Defense Minister Charles Hernu, who has called President Reagan a "great statesman" who, like Mitterrand, "is seeking to reestablish the identity of his own country." Mitterrand himself has roundly and repeatedly criticized the Reagan Administration's policies on the economy and Central America. Nevertheless, the Reagan-Mitterrand entente, based on policy concerns in Europe of major importance to both, has been the diplomatic wonder of the age.

Preelection Socialist talk of renegotiating the Alliance stopped early, and Mitterrand provided a symbolic reaffirmation of France's ties to it by inviting the council of foreign ministers to hold its 1983 spring session in Paris, for the first time since 1966. Many expected that Mitterrand would try to link Alliance cooperation with changes he desired in American economic policy. But, notwithstanding very sharp public criticism of high American interest rates and much else, he has not tried to link security issues and economic issues in the U.S.-French dialogue. He has not even pretended to do so for home consumption. Perhaps he believed that he needed, and appreciated having received, a certain degree of American tolerance, or better, for his government's domestic economic policies.

Even so, the Socialist government's pronounced anti-Sovietism has not made the French any more willing than before to accept either the American view that there should be a global strategy for dealing with the Russians or many of the specific policies the United States has promoted as part of its own version of a grand strategy. The French accept even less the idea that the United States has a right to lay down policies binding on the allies in major matters in the absence of arguments they find persuasive. Thus, the French government does not think it is sound, sensible or prudent to try to undermine Soviet power by economic warfare and is pleased that the Reagan Administration, after certain alarums at the start, does not seem to think so either. The French also reject the American view that the bipolarity which they do not challenge for now in Europe extends also throughout the rest of the world. This is in line with past French policy, but contrasts with it in that the familiar policy of anti-hegemonism outside Europe has been joined to a stark new policy of anti-Sovietism in Europe which leaves little opportunity or hope for promoting the Gaullist policy of "overcoming Yalta."

France also sees no reason to keep quiet about American policies that injure it, such as high interest rates. But the French have kept their foreign economic policy as distinct from their security policy in Europe as they have kept security policy separate from their position toward superpower rivalry outside Europe. And they have not done as much as one might expect to use U.S.-European economic differences to raise European consciousness in the old Gaullist way or launch any move for closer European unity as a response to American economic preponderance.

France has thus dealt with the United States as a partner in European security, a competitor-partner in the management of the troubled international economy, and an opponent in those parts of the Third World where it sees the United States trying to block local pressures for inevitable change in the belief, or on the pretext, that these are Soviet-backed.

If Mitterrand's reading of events in the Third World precludes the kind of total cooperation the United States would like from France, so his reading of the European situation rules out the kind of policies aimed at dismantling the two blocs, or overcoming the cold war, or serving as broker or bridge between the two superpowers, which both Gaullism and socialism would seem to favor. As international tensions have grown sharper, Mitterrand has said little to suggest that he thought such French initiatives would be useful or appropriate. When he finally opened direct contact with the Soviet leadership in the fourth year of his term, his purpose was to make sure that the Russians understood his positions, particularly on arms control, and that France would not be left out if the United States, in an election year or after, suddenly leaped from neo-cold war to neo-détente. But the long-term dream of reducing the role of the superpowers in Europe and restoring the autonomy, and eventually the unity, of the old continent is seldom mentioned even as a distant goal of policy.

This is not the only imaginable policy for a French government today. It has an option of a very different kind. The United States presents an alarming image to many in Europe. France might choose to head those forces, which lack a leader, by arguing that now if ever is the moment for the countries of Western Europe to assert their independence of both blocs before the over-armed and reckless superpowers force them to, or over, the brink of war. If we add to these widespread concerns the fact that the allies have also suffered from American economic policy, and that they do not like much of U.S. policy in the Third World, there is clearly the material here for a very different kind of French policy, one that might deserve the name Gaullist or Socialist much more than Mitterrand's does. A left-led Germany would not find it easy to play the role this situation invites. Even a left-led Britain, probably more isolationist than European, would not. Who if not France seems cast for the part?

Mitterrand certainly has understood this. If he has not moved in that direction it is because of his genuine concern about the implications for French security of the imbalance of power in Europe, a situation very different from that when de Gaulle felt free to challenge the United States and the Atlantic system 20 years ago. No difference with the United States about economic policy or the Third World has been allowed to override these considerations. France has no difficulty in pursuing a compartmented policy that leads to cooperation with the United States on the most important issues, less cooperation or none on others.

Mitterrand stated his priorities clearly when he said that anything which might overcome Yalta would be good, but no one should mistake the wish for the reality. Vital security interests with respect to both the Soviet Union and the Federal Republic leave France no choice but to do what it has been doing, and few (outside the Communist Party) challenge this policy, either in the name of the former Gaullist vision or of some atavistic socialist dream.

This substantive realism has had a powerful impact on Mitterrand's style of conducting foreign policy. He has cultivated an image of calm candor by talking in Israel about a Palestinian state, in Washington about the rights of Central American nations, and in the Kremlin about Andrei Sakharov. But his sobriety of tone contrasts sharply with de Gaulle's theatrical and combative style. The difference suggests, in fact, that Mitterrand is not much concerned, as the General was, with proving to the French that they are still the masters of their fate even in a world of superpowers.

Mitterrand certainly does not hesitate to proclaim that France is independent. But he does not talk much about independence as a goal in itself or zealously defend the fine points of France's international status. He does not mind visiting the United States more often than President Reagan visits France or going to Moscow when protocol called for a Soviet leader to come to Paris. His disinclination to use or abuse foreign policy for domestic political purposes (and no French president has had more urgent reasons to want to do so) means that a very major element of Gaullism no longer counts for much in the making and staging of French foreign policy.


French independence is most explicitly affirmed, as it has been since 1958, in the area of defense policy. One of de Gaulle's most enduring successes was not only to build the independent French nuclear force-in the face of considerable opposition-but to convince the French public that by doing so he had ended their security dependence on the United States. Perhaps there has been a certain cynicism mixed with this conviction, for the French know that they have no frontier or bilateral quarrel with the Soviet Union and are surrounded by countries which remain linked to the United States militarily through NATO. Still, they probably do believe that their independent defense posture has made it impossible, because unnecessary, for concern about being a helpless pawn of superpower conflict or entente to breed pacifism and neutralism in France, as in some of its neighbors.

While independence in defense continues to be not only affirmed but strengthened by a decision to improve the nuclear forces, there have been other changes in French defense doctrine and planning which are more ambiguous. There had been expectations that Socialist defense policy might be more Gaullist than Giscard's in that it would reemphasize the power and autonomy of the French nuclear force and play down such signs as there had been that France might nuance or supplement its basic doctrine of nuclear deterrence with some concept of flexible response (without the name) that might lead it to take part in war in Germany in cooperation with the other Atlantic allies.

Mitterrand has indeed emphasized the continuing priority of the nuclear force and the classic Gaullist anti-city deterrent strategy. But his government's thoughts about the relation between nuclear deterrence of an attack on France and the circumstances in which France might engage in fighting elsewhere in Europe (that is, in Germany) are unclear, no doubt deliberately so. France continues to keep troops in Germany, as it has done under all Mitterrand's predecessors, which in itself exposes it to the risk of involuntary engulfment in war short of a Soviet attack on the French home sanctuary. Moreover, it is revamping some of its conventional forces into a so-called rapid action force (FAR), which would purportedly allow France to participate more effectively in conflict outside the home territory. The existence of the FAR is said to strengthen the overall French deterrent capability insofar as the Soviet invader of the F.R.G. would know that, once it encountered the FAR, it would be risking nuclear reprisal from Germany's one continental ally with an independent nuclear force.

The French government also is developing a neutron weapon (though it says it has made no final decision on production), and plans to replace the army's Pluton tactical nuclear missile with the longer-range Hades. These innovations, like the FAR, point to the possibility of combat in Germany alongside the allies should the president choose in given circumstances to enter such combat.

At the same time, however, the French government says that the French nuclear deterrent cannot protect the other continental allies, who must look to the United States and the NATO integrated command for guarantees. There is no automatic French commitment to fight in Germany. Moreover, flexible response is derided, the notion of renouncing possible first use of nuclear weapons has few friends in France, and conventional forces are being reduced in overall number for budgetary reasons even while their effectiveness is being upgraded. In short, the Mitterrand government has reaccentuated the main lines and the main ambiguities of its predecessors' defense planning-dating back to de Gaulle-with policies which continue as before to reflect cross-cutting foreign and domestic (including budgetary) considerations.


The Mitterrand government may not have clarified its security commitment to the Federal Republic, but good relations with Bonn have been the keystone of its European policy, as with that of its predecessors back to 1958, if not 1950. Such relations are also essential to its economic well-being. France and the F.R.G. are each other's best trading partners and the joint centers of the European Community and the European Monetary System. The French have had occasion to find out in the last three years how useful to them is a dependable degree of German support in economic and, particularly, monetary matters. Not surprisingly, polls show that the French think the Germans are their best friends.

German collaboration would be essential to the success of any French policy which aimed to lead Western Europe, whether in cooperation with or opposition to the United States. But the choice France makes between the pursuit of one or the other of these policy options is based in part on a reading of the German situation itself as well as of Soviet and American policies. De Gaulle aspired to the leadership of Western Europe, which he hoped would play an increasingly independent role in East-West affairs, by means of a privileged French relationship with the Federal Republic, within and also beyond the European Community. But Mitterrand, unlike de Gaulle, has done nothing to encourage greater German independence from the United States. On the contrary, he has consistently encouraged German attachment to the Atlantic Alliance and the United States.

The French government and people fear German pacifism and possible neutralism, the prospect that the F.R.G. might fall prey to nationalist extremism of the left or right, that German membership in the Western Alliance-which both assures German security and confines German initiative-might become weakened, and that the Federal Republic might seek an accommodation with the Soviet Union on terms inimical to French security interests. France does not want a nationalist or neutralist or, as some would say, Gaullist Germany on its eastern border, pursuing security or reunification outside orthodox Alliance channels where its activities are subject to French and American influence.

In the 1960s, many Europeans feared that de Gaulle's policies might lead to just such results in Germany, so they resisted de Gaulle and clung the more to NATO and the United States. Now, in the 1980s, the French government itself, and most Frenchmen, share that fear and react in much the same way. The Gaullist policy of unraveling the two blocs-which, if that were imaginable, would imply, at least to the Germans, the eventual reunification of their country-does not seem to the French a better answer to their permanent German problem than the one devised in the early 1950s based on the division of Germany and the integration of the F.R.G. with the West. The French are not displeased that the Gaullist option is not now imaginable. They take the basic solidity of the Soviet bloc as a given, notwithstanding all its troubles, and see no better way to secure Germany, and France too, than in the Atlantic system and, supplementary to that, the European Community. In present circumstances we might well speak of a U.S.-French entente to contain West Germany.

It is remarkable that the Mitterrand government, enjoying a firm relationship with the Kohl government in Bonn, has made so little effort to promote West European unity or closer cooperation. Mitterrand and the Socialist Party were supporters of European integration during the Fourth Republic, and criticized de Gaulle for turning away from it. To revive such a policy now would not in itself contradict the government's realistic attitude toward the present facts of power in Europe, but it would at least let France hold out the hope of better times to come to those many Europeans who are resentful or fearful of superpower dominance. It would also enhance France's leadership role.

In fact, the behavior of the Mitterrand government toward the European Community, and toward European cooperation more broadly, suggests that its objectives have been practical and, measured by the dream of unity, limited. There has not been much effort at European consciousness-raising of the kind de Gaulle, and to some extent his successors, engaged in. The low level of French effort in favor of a greater role for the EC group in European and world affairs, in the longer term if not the near term, is a further indication of Mitterrand's doubts about being able to achieve much now in that direction. It also reflects, once again, his disinclination to talk about things he cannot hope to accomplish.

France's first priority in European affairs has been to maximize French economic benefits. A major aspect of this has been monetary cooperation with the Federal Republic in the European Monetary System. Another has been to get the best deal possible for French farmers, industries and regions. But the government has also used the EC for longer-range domestic purposes. It agreed, for example, to cuts in EC subsidies to French steel and milk production, notwithstanding high political costs from the constituencies involved, because it wants to gear up France to compete in an increasingly rough international market by shifting resources to more productive uses.

One consequence of this French priority has been to make nonsense of the once popular notion that Socialist France would make a particular effort to bring Socialist and Latin Spain and Portugal into the EC, both to strengthen democratic institutions in those countries and to strengthen its own weight in the Community by using them as counterweights to the northern countries. Nothing that has been done by the French government supports the notion that it wants to build a Socialist or southern bloc in the EC. This is perfectly sensible of the French, for such a bloc looks more weighty and coherent to theorists than it would be likely to prove from the point of view of French interests in the rough-and-tumble world of Community bargaining. The Federal Republic and none other is France's privileged partner in that world.

France has talked of strengthening the social policy of the Community and preparing its members for the third industrial revolution. But those members, all suffering from hard times, have not been able to agree on much of substance in these fields. Perhaps it is an achievement that, notwithstanding the times, France has resisted the temptation to withdraw from the European Monetary System or to try to "recapture the home market" by instituting intra-EC trade barriers in one form or another. Its decision not to do such things has been buttressed by a clear understanding of the benefits it derives from the Community and by concrete support, above all by the F.R.G., of French economic and monetary policy, the essentiality of which to France, after three devaluations of the franc since May 1981, need not be emphasized.

The Mitterrand government would no doubt have been happy to work with its EC partners to get the United States to change what European finance ministers, in February 1982, called its "murderous" monetary policies. If they have had little effect on U.S. decision-making in this sphere it is not because of lack of French effort but because, as Le Monde observed on that occasion, "the Europeans note yet again the cruel fact that the dollar rules the world and they are its slaves." But this painful realization-never more obvious than in the last three years-has not spurred the EC members to closer economic unity, any more than has the problem of dealing with a recession common to them all.

More surprising is the absence of any French initiative to strengthen the unifying elements in the Community, through expanding the authority of the Commission or Parliament, or moving to implement the letter of the Rome treaty, annulled in practice by de Gaulle, that provides for less than unanimous decision-making on some matters. Nor has Mitterrand made much effort to put a French stamp on the political consultation mechanism that parallels the Community. This group achieved some visibility in Giscard's time, if not much effectiveness, because of its initiatives with respect to the Middle East and Afghanistan. France made an effort in 1982 to update their Venice Declaration on the Middle East. But it could not persuade all its partners to go as far as it wished with respect to the Palestinian question, and nothing was done. But then France has its own position on these and other issues, its own influence on and channels of communication to the United States and others. Perhaps Mitterrand finds that France's voice is adequate to speak for France's interests, and that the traditional effort to magnify it by "leading Europe" is more trouble than it is worth.

During the last few months, however, there has been some increase in official French attention to the Community. During the first half of 1984 the rotating presidency of the Community institutions happened to come around to France, and the campaign for the June elections to the European Parliament took place. In France, as elsewhere, the elections were much more a referendum on the popularity (or unpopularity) of the government in power than on any issue connected with the Community. But the Mitterrand government, pressed by the opposition on European issues, judged that it might be good politics as well as sound statesmanship to talk up Europe somewhat more and, particularly, to use the period of the French presidency to resolve the issues that had increasingly sapped the Community's morale and reputation.

Throughout Mitterrand's tenure the members of the Community had been engaged in a drawn-out negotiation over Community resources and programs, which in fact involved the balance of costs and benefits for each member. Great Britain was the principal demandeur, arguing that its contributions under existing rules were excessive. Connected with this question was whether and how the EC would be able to continue to finance its programs, particularly the common agricultural program, which subsidized farmers-above all French farmers-to produce unsellable output at above market prices in so costly a manner as to absorb most of the Community's financial resources. The debate on all these issues had become so bitter by the end of 1983 that it not only precluded progress on other Community issues but raised the question of whether the EC could survive with Britain as a member-or perhaps even without it.

The ten governments reached agreement on financial and agricultural issues, but not the British contribution, before the European elections, in which nearly all the ruling parties suffered set-backs. Perhaps spurred by this, they finally achieved a settlement during a summit meeting held at Fontainebleau at the end of June. Mitterrand's tactful handling of the unpopular British and his willingness to reduce French milk production suggest the value he attached to obtaining agreement. Certainly he did not want Britain to leave the Community or be driven out during the French presidency, nor did he want a failure to reach agreement that would lead to the Community's bankruptcy. Beyond that, he also believed that the time had come for the EC to move on to other issues (including the admission of Spain and Portugal) and for Western Europe to organize itself better, within the limits of the practical.

The Fontainebleau agreement, by ending (at least for a time) the seemingly permanent quarrel about costs and benefits, has removed what many have thought were the main obstacles to improved European cooperation. It should soon become clear whether the financial and agricultural issues were truly obstacles to progress in other areas or whether they were a pretext for the absence of progress which, for other reasons, could not be made. The actual French proposals for closer union have so far been modest, and the likelihood that the ten-or twelve-members will be able to agree on enhanced common decision-making remains uncertain.

We should mingle caution with our hopes for early strengthening of European cooperation, particularly in the realm of defense policy. Partly because of the tense international situation focused on Europe, and partly because of the European Parliament elections, there has been a revival of talk about strengthening the Western European Union in order to maximize European defense efforts, fortify European morale and self-assurance in the face of pacifism and neutralism, and better balance American predominance in the Alliance.

Some of the policies of the French government itself can be seen as responding, among other objectives, to these considerations. The role of the rapid action force is described in such a way as to encourage some degree of German confidence in French protection while avoiding any firm commitment to concerted action with the other allies in wartime. France has shown interest, not for the first time, in the joint development and production of new weapons by various groupings of European countries. It has also implemented defense talks with the F.R.G. on the basis of a long dormant article of the 1963 treaty between them. The two governments announced in May an important agreement for the joint production of combat helicopters.

But these points of policy are far outweighed by repeated French assertions that the nuclear force guarantees French vital interests only (to be defined by the president in given circumstances) and that non-nuclear allies, including the F.R.G., must look for their guarantees to NATO and the United States. Former Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy has said that a European defense system presupposes a European political authority, presumably out of the question now. Foreign Minister Cheysson has derided the prospects for a common European foreign policy and said that sharing responsibility for the use of nuclear weapons is unimaginable. Defense Minister Hernu said in Bonn that any effort to devise a French (or, presumably, a French-British) nuclear umbrella for Europe would encourage U.S. decoupling and isolationism, which would leave things worse than they are. These comments tell us nothing about French policy we do not already know. They should scotch any wishful hopes about the prospects for extensive European defense cooperation in the foreseeable future which, going beyond conversation, would succeed in better balancing Alliance burdens and responsibilities to the benefit of American taxpayers and West European morale.


Cooperation with the United States in Europe may give a Socialist president of France additional reasons not "to kneel" before the United States in other matters, as Cheysson put it. But the pattern of disagreements between the French and American governments with respect to non-European issues is a persistent one, going back to the end of the French colonial empire and de Gaulle's brilliant seizing of that occasion to transform France into the champion of Third World countries and causes. In this area of policy, Mitterrand is essentially following de Gaulle's script, but in his own way.

Mitterrand's France presents itself as the patron among aligned countries of the nonaligned, the best friend among the developed of the less developed. Cheysson has said that France is not nonaligned but that it encourages those that can "escape" alignment. The word "escape" has a poignancy in this context which is surely not Gaullist. The General broke the constraints that tied France's hands, or claimed to. Mitterrand accepts them while counseling Third World countries to avoid the fate that sadly overtook Europe in the 1940s: division by the superpowers.

France now tolerates and even sanctions bipolarity in Europe while denouncing it as the worst of evils elsewhere. It rejects the American view that wars and revolutions in the Third World should be addressed mainly as emanations of the East-West contest. Mitterrand, on the contrary, has said that they "are born first from misery, exploitation and totalitarianism, before becoming, unhappily, the stake of East-West conflicts." He does not deny that the Soviet Union exploits such conditions, but says that the West cannot prevent or resolve the resulting upheavals if it focuses on the Soviet element in the situation, real or fancied, and neglects the local roots.

Mitterrand has spoken with conviction and eloquence about the disparities between rich and poor countries and has urged the West to address these problems, and the violence to which they give rise, on their own merits. The French have ranged themselves, not for the first time, in favor of increasing aid from the advanced countries to the underdeveloped, including price supports for the raw materials they export and a new world monetary order. This traditional French policy has been buttressed by the argument that the recovery of the industrial countries from recession cannot take place unless more is done to help the less developed buy and produce. Theory has been joined to practice by an agreement providing for French purchase of Algerian gas at a political, or higher-than-market, price. France undertook this agreement proudly, calling it "not a simple commercial agreement but a fundamental agreement of codevelopment." In doing so, France was not being naive or even merely principled, since Algeria-always a key French partner in the Maghreb and among Arab and nonaligned countries-has a strong stake in so profitable an arrangement and, therefore, in maintaining good relations with France.

The special attention the Mitterrand government has given to Algeria signals a broader innovation in its approach to Third World policy: a search for privileged partners in various parts of the world with whom it can act in order to enhance its own influence. Algeria is one such partner. Egypt may be another. India is the object of French attentions in Asia. The most striking manifestation of this approach to regional problems was France's effort to act with Mexico in Central America. During Mitterrand's first year, France provided arms to Nicaragua and, jointly with Mexico, called for negotiations with the Salvadoran rebels.

This French behavior has somehow not had the unsettling effect on the Reagan Administration that de Gaulle's Phnom Penh speech about the future of Indochina, for example, had on Lyndon Johnson's Washington. For one thing, France's cooperation in Europe is appreciated, an asset the General did not have. Then, it seems to have been noticed that France does not have much influence in Central America, even in league with Mexico. In addition, France has pulled its punches on this subject since 1981. The French-Mexican initiative has not been followed up. Mitterrand, who visited the United States before the Versailles Summit in 1982, said then that France did not want to complicate things in Central America where, after all, the United States was in the front line.

The French policy of trying to keep the superpowers in their place in-or out of-the Third World has been more pronounced in the Middle East, an area of obviously far greater importance to France than Central America. There have been significant French initiatives and activities on all the many problems that have dominated the area during Mitterrand's tenure.

Taking office as the best friend Israel ever had in the Elysée, Mitterrand was to be the first French president to visit that country. But his visit had to be put off twice, first because of the Israeli bombing of Iraq's French-built nuclear facility in June 1981, which his government condemned as "unacceptable and very grave," and then because of Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights in January 1982, described by Cheysson as "a veritable provocation to international law." By the time the visit took place, in March 1982, Mitterrand's attempt to tilt France's longtime pro-Arab policy somewhat more in the direction of Israel had been largely negated, not only by these episodes but by the evolution in the other direction of his policy on the key Arab-Israeli issues.

Mitterrand has consistently reaffirmed his commitment to Israel's right to existence and security, and has said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with anyone who refuses to recognize these rights in advance. But when he spoke to the Knesset, he had the courage to say that the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank should have a state of their own at the appropriate moment. Further, both he and Cheysson have said repeatedly that they know of no Palestinians other than the Palestine Liberation Organization who could take part in eventual negotiations. The French have continued to support the PLO as the expression of Palestinian nationalism through the vicissitudes of its fortunes in the last two years. PLO leader Yassir Arafat, for his part, has praised "the friendly and courageous attitude of the French president and people."

This evolution of France's policy toward the PLO has facilitated its courtship of every available Arab state, which has been rewarded with substantial contracts, particularly for arms. There has been a significant improvement of relations with Egypt, displayed most strikingly in the shift of French policy toward approval of the Camp David agreement and process. By agreeing to put troops in the Sinai force, France took an important step toward Israel and the United States, but also toward Egypt, notwithstanding French skepticism about where the peace talks might go next.

In this and other ways, French activity in the Middle East has been aimed at reasserting France's presence in the area and its potential role in the negotiation of settlements of area problems. At the same time, the French have been careful not to describe their activities in exaggerated terms. French policy toward Lebanon has been based on these considerations as well as the historical tie which has made the policy popular in France despite its risks and costs in the lives of French soldiers. France's long-standing interest in the Levant was reinforced by Giscard's decision to allow French participation in the United Nations force stationed in southern Lebanon. The Mitterrand government then added another dimension to French activity by allowing French troops to be included in the four-power Western force which was sent to Lebanon to expedite the PLO's departure from Beirut in 1982. They were sent back later to protect the Palestinians in the camps, thereafter assigned an escalating role-by the French government as well as by the United States-of staying on until Lebanese reconciliation was achieved and the Lebanese army was able to maintain order. And they were then withdrawn before these goals were achieved.

Here as elsewhere the French think that a solution, if there can be one, depends on negotiations rather than the use of force, and that such negotiations require the participation, and eventual agreement, of all the parties that carry weight in the situation, including the Lebanese factions, Syria and the Soviet Union. Thus, the French military presence worked in parallel with American policy while French objectives were quite different. At the same time, the French have also expressed the view that a settlement in Lebanon depends on a broader Middle East settlement between Israel and its enemies, which depends, in turn, on American pressure on Israel. An election year in the United States does not seem to them a likely time for such pressure to be exerted, and the French therefore cannot be very surprised about the present stalemate in the area. But they maintain contact with as many of the interested parties as possible and are ready to take part, to the limit of their connections and influence, in whatever movement toward negotiations may develop.

France's conspicuous role as an arms supplier to Iraq stands somewhat apart from its broader Middle East policies because that country has been largely immobilized in the maneuvering about the Arab-Israeli and Lebanese questions by its war with Iran. The most criticized manifestation of this French policy was the decision in 1983 to withdraw five Super-Etendard attack planes equipped with Exocet missiles from duty with the French fleet for loan to Iraq. Implementation of the decision was far from neat and France was accused of risking a dangerous escalation of fighting in the Gulf in order to promote a narrow self-interest. Defense Minister Hernu said afterward that "the world is still turning."

French efforts to keep relations with Libya on as even a keel as possible have been tortuous but less successful. French motives are political but also commercial, as they have been since Pompidou first targeted Libya as an interesting object of French attentions. The Mitterrand government has not believed that Qaddafi was out of reach as a possible negotiating partner and has not wanted to leave him isolated and dependent on the Soviet Union. But French-Libyan relations have gotten worse for several reasons, including Libyan opposition to French policy toward Israel, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon. The most important source of disagreement, however, has been Chad. Mitterrand's very reluctant decision to reinvolve French forces in Chad deserves attention because that country has been a point of junction for French policy toward Africa, Libya and the United States as well.

The new Socialist government had been expected to keep Africa as the centerpiece of France's extra-European interests, but to adopt a more "decolonizing" and less affairiste policy of helping progressive African governments and curbing relations with the more repressive and corrupt regimes. In practice, however, Mitterrand made clear from the start not only that France would maintain its existing ties and commitments but that progress toward democracy or social improvement in African countries would not be a prerequisite of satisfactory state-to-state cooperation.

Giscard had cut his losses in Chad's seemingly endless civil war by withdrawing French forces in May 1980, leaving in power a regime sponsored by the Organization of African Unity and dominated by the Libyan-backed Goukouni Oueddei. Mitterrand tried to renew France's presence in Chad by extending aid to this regime but without challenging the Libyan position. The fragile status quo broke down in 1982 when former President Hissen Habré, whom Libya had opposed, returned to power (with American support according to French suspicions). France, however, resumed aid to him, presumably with the hope that Libya might limit its response if the French could limit Habré's dependence on the United States. But this French hope was disappointed when Goukouni set up a government in the north of Chad under Libyan auspices.

As the Libyans advanced south, a chorus of appeals came to Mitterrand from the many francophone states that feared they might be next. He became increasingly concerned both that these states might turn to the United States for help if France did not provide it (the presidents of Zaïre, Senegal and the Ivory Coast all visited Washington during the summer of 1983), and that the United States itself might come to Habré's aid or even attack Libya, thus opening the door to superpower conflict in an area where French interests and prestige were heavily committed.

Mitterrand's decision in August to send French troops back to Chad was taken only after assistance short of intervention and warnings to Libya failed. His hesitation was not because of scruples about the use of force but reflected very realistic concerns that France might be able to preserve part of Chad from Libyan absorption but could not bring the affair to a satisfactory once-and-for-all conclusion. But this well-founded doubt was overridden by the conviction that a line had to be drawn if the entire French position in Africa was not to be swept away by further Libyan intrusions and/or a rush of the francophone states to American protection.

The American factor in France's African policy was clearly an important one. The public quarrel that broke out between the two governments after the intervention began about the degree of their cooperation reflected, from the French side, a concern to avoid over-identification with the Western superpower. Mitterrand does not share the Reagan Administration's obsession with Libya and expects sooner or later to negotiate an arrangement with it. But contacts between the French and Libyan governments have failed so far to produce an agreement. The Libyans may be waiting to see how long France will be content to sit in Chad if it is unable to negotiate an agreement and unwilling either to go to war itself or help Habré carry the war into the north. Mitterrand foresaw these costs and risks and is presumably committed to bearing them while pursuing a negotiated settlement. If so, the results of French policy in Chad itself, whatever the benefits in other respects, may be at best a de facto partition and Libyan absorption of the north, and even that only at the price of an indefinite French military presence.


Throughout this discussion I have emphasized Mitterrand's realistic adaptation of French foreign policy to circumstances, and his tendency to avoid talk of grand designs and distant visions. But a policy which is strongly linked to circumstances is more likely to change as circumstances change than one that is more deeply rooted in the psychological needs or private dreams of the policymaker. Significant changes in the environment are likely, therefore, to have significant impact on Mitterrand's policies.

One change with little or no connection to foreign policy was the appointment of Laurent Fabius in July to head a new cabinet, and the departure of the Communist Party from the government coalition. A change of prime ministers halfway through a president's term has been standard practice in the Fifth Republic. Mitterrand had even more reasons than his predecessors to want to reinvigorate a government weighed down by the negative political consequences (shown in the June elections to the European Parliament) of a dismal economic record. As for the Communists, their alliance with the Socialist Party first served the domestic interests of both and now has ceased to do so. It is no more likely that Mitterrand will now become less anti-Soviet because he no longer has to compensate for the presence of Communists in his government than that his posture between the superpowers was ever determined by anything other than his reading of the international balance of forces.

If and when the French government becomes convinced that the East-West military balance has been reestablished, the premises of its policies toward the Soviet Union, the United States and Europe will be changed. Opportunities would be increased for dialogue with the Russians-if they are so inclined-and greater distancing from the Americans in Alliance and European affairs. Even short of such a change in the environment, the Mitterrand government might find it essential to step up diplomatic contact with the Russians if that seemed likely to be fruitful in, for example, Middle East affairs, or if the United States decided to do so.

Some change in this direction may be underway. It is not easy for the allies to keep up with the shifts in American policy, or rhetoric, toward the Soviet Union, linked as these are to domestic political calculations. In 1984 the United States has seemed to be moving toward dialogue as the Soviet Union seems to be moving in the other direction. The French expect U.S.-Soviet negotiations on arms control to resume after the November elections. Mitterrand told President Reagan in March that the time was ripe to reopen talks with the Soviet Union now that the Alliance had reaffirmed its coherence and firmness by going ahead with the INF deployments. His visit to the Soviet Union was announced at that time. Whether or not he thinks such dialogue will be immediately fruitful-and his visit last June does not seem to have been-he no doubt believes that France must not let itself be bypassed by the United States in the opening of doors to Moscow. No one can expect greater rigidity from the French government than from the American in such matters, even if, as the French claim, "normal" relations with the U.S.S.R. remain precluded by the continued Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Mitterrand will not follow de Gaulle's example, up to 1964, by being the last of the neo-cold warriors, the more so as his German partner, unlike Adenauer's F.R.G., has quite different ideas.

A second change which would affect French policy would arise from an American embrace of the Federal Republic so intimate as to downgrade the place of France in the policy affections of the United States. This would undermine one of the main premises of the remarkable U.S.-French entente of the last three years. As France and the United States moved together when the F.R.G. and the United States seemed to be moving apart, so a too close coming together of the latter pair would weaken the ties between the former, impelling France to look for new diplomatic combinations in order to avoid isolation and whatever threat to its interests it might see in an overly exclusive U.S.-German entente.

These tendencies, of course, are relative, not absolute. The ties of all three countries to the Atlantic Alliance are not likely to be called into question. But tact on the part of the United States in its dealings with both major European allies, and attention to their individual interests and susceptibilities, would help avoid unnecessary frictions. Up to now the U.S. government has, on the whole, shown such tact (and when it failed to do so, as during the pipeline controversy, it alienated both France and the F.R.G.). Mitterrand's visit to Washington last March was a triumph of mutual appreciation. He seemed at that moment almost to have achieved by cooperation that American recognition of France's independence and importance as a voluntary ally which de Gaulle had tried and failed to win by other means.

Finally, in the Third World, U.S.-French disagreements have not seriously strained the relationship in the last three years because, first, these issues have not become more important than European problems. Second, both of the governments have been willing to live and let live, at least compared to the past, with respect to extra-European matters, and even to cooperate to a considerable extent. But a sharp increase in the level of conflict in Central America, for example, or in some other part of the world where the United States becomes involved in resisting what it considers Soviet-backed upheaval, has the potential of making it more difficult for both France and the United States to maintain the level of mutual tolerance they have been displaying.

In such an event, forbearance on both sides would be required if unavoidable disagreements were not to affect cooperation in Europe. The American government would have to be content with little or no French support for actions which it might think were in the interests of the allies as well as itself. It would need to make clear at home that the security of Europe, maintained by cooperation with France and other allies, is valuable and necessary in itself, however much or little the Europeans cooperate on other issues and in other places. This has always turned out to be the U.S. attitude in practice (the Alliance would not have survived for 35 years otherwise), but it would be easier on everyone's nerves if the United States in the future could avoid going up the hill in quest of French (and other allied) support in cases where it is not to be had, and then going back down again after a damaging spate of bad language on both sides.

The Socialist government of France will do well in such cases to recognize that the United States will not take much account of its analysis of Third World problems and will act in response to the American reading of the Soviet position, the local situation in each given case, and the latitude given it by Congress and American public opinion.

In the future, as in recent years, realistic expectations on both sides will be the single most important ingredient of a productive relationship between the United States and France.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • A.W. DePorte is a visiting scholar at the Institute of French Studies, New York University. He was formerly director of the office of research on Western Europe in the Department of State. His most recent book is Europe Between the Superpowers: The Enduring Balance.
  • More By A. W. DePorte