One more tango in Paris

Marci McDonald February 25 1980

One more tango in Paris

Marci McDonald February 25 1980

One more tango in Paris


Marci McDonald

As press conferences go, it had been choreographed with a flourish. On cue, two priceless Aubusson tapestries had swung open over the stage of the glittering grand ballroom of the Elysée Palace, and French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had broken into a diplomatic duet in perfect unison rapping the Soviets over the knuckles for invading Afghanistan and endangering détente. After nearly six weeks of waffling on the question, it was a performance that seemed to put the twin leaders of the European Community at last in step with the hard line of Jimmy Carter. But some observers seated in the little gilt chairs of the audience at the time noted that the ceremony rang with an unconvincing showbiz air.

The hint of play-acting was only heightened last week in the wake of developments that seemed to confirm that the French had promptly gone out of their way to break stride—not only with the spirit of the freshly signed joint statement with the Germans but certainly with the notion of a Western European chorus line kicking up its heels at Moscow on cue from Washington.

Schmidt was barely out of town when Giscard was telling reporters that the communiqué hadn’t meant quite what it seemed. He backpedalled to point out that he intended to “preserve what has been acquired in recent years as to peace and the maintenance of détente.” No sooner was that raising eyebrows at the White House than Foreign Minister Jean François-Poncet was throwing a scene-stealing tantrum, refusing to attend a European foreign ministers’ dinner with U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance this week in Bonn because Washington had leaked the impression to the press that Europe was falling into line against the Soviets.

A state department spokesman declared “puzzlement” at all the French about-faces and The New York Times delivered a highly criticial review, noting that France’s independent soft-shoe was giving the Soviets the impression of disarray in the West. Even the Soviet news agency Tass acknowledged—not without some discreet pleasure—that France seemed poised “between two chairs.”

By week’s end, however, indications began to emerge that the huffy backing out of the Bonn dinner was but a pretext for the French to throw the spotlight on the fact that—once again, in the tradition es-

tablished by Charles de Gaulle—they were determined to dance to their own music.

Nor were the French the only ones. The British, too, seemed to be toning down their first scramble of solidarity. Said British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington in Paris: “We must all sing in harmony but not necessarily in unison.” In Bonn, Schmidt appeared to be criticizing the “numerous dangers” of Carter’s hard line against the Soviets through his good

friend Theo Sommer, editor-in-chief of Die Zeit, who lambasted the U.S. administration for leaving the Soviets “no exit,” and in the procesé running the risk of cancelling out the gains of détente.

Indeed, behind-the-scenes in Paris, word leaked out that Giscard’s apparently impetuous star turn had won the prearranged backing of the German chancellor. Faced with an election this year, Schmidt has a stake in seeing the gains of détente—his major platform—continue, with an eventual view to reuniting the two Germanies—the one issue that is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser among his voters. As he says, “The Americans have 53 hostages in Tehran; we have 16 million on the other side of the demarcation line.” Indeed, what France’s pirouette served to emphasize more than anything else is that Western Europe—with or without Britain—has no intention of being drawn into what it suspects is Carter’s own bravado election campaigning.

After years of urging the Americans to take a firmer stand against the Soviets, Western Europe now fears that the White House has flip-flopped to another disturbing extreme. European diplomats are openly wondering whom they ought to trust: Carter, the vacillating president, or the get-tough, born-again candidate. Said one American adviser to the state department, who has been no fan of the current administration: “France may have the only sensible position right now. They’re saying they refuse to follow blindly along

behind a superpower which essentially has no consistent foreign policy. Can anybody blame them?”

Fast friends ever since their days as finance ministers, and still so close they talk daily on the telephone in English, Giscard and Schmidt reportedly became wary of getting caught in Carter’s chaotic wake at the Western summit last year in Guadeloupe, when it became apparent to them that he had no stake in the defence of Europe.

Already miffed at having been promised U.S. nuclear deterrent missiles one minute, then refused the next, Schmidt determined to cut Europe’s apron strings to Mother Washington. For both countries, the advantages of striking out on a course independent of both Moscow and Washington were as clear as the profits to be won from détente.

West Germany is the largest single supplier of manufactured goods to the Communist bloc countries, and France, too, has important scientific, technological and industrial exchanges, including a bid

to build a $100-million aluminum smelter in Siberia. With delicately balanced economies—both dependent on imported energy—neither has been willing to risk cutting those ties by agreeing to follow Washington’s stage directions for economic sanctions against the Soviets, although they haven’t ruled out that riposte if the bear continues to flex its brawn.

Still, France in particular has not been averse to pursuing the path etched out by de Gaulle nearly 20 years ago in his philosophy of a “troisième voie"—a third route, between the two Cold War powers.

Giscard has relished a role as the independent gendarme and arms supplier to the Middle East and Africa and, from all indications, he has every intention of expanding his range. This week, French Prime Minister Raymond Barre travels to Saudi Arabia to prepare for a presidential visit at the end of the month—a call that is not lacking in significance.

It was to French troops, after all, not American, that the Saudis turned to help them rout the insurgents from the Grand

Mosque at Mecca last year, underlining Saudi Arabia’s insistence that no American military presence was desired within the country until the Palestinian question was solved. If Giscard is profiting from Carter’s chaotic foreign policy, however, it is to de Gaulle that he owes his ability to follow his own inclinations.

It was the general who choreographed France’s contentious leap into nuclear defence with a missile system, which promptly allowed him to cut loose from NATO. Indeed, as if aware of that, in the midst of declaring his independence from Carter in these past weeks, Giscard announced plans to modernize the celebrated "force de frappe."

As one diplomatic observer put it, “For years, everybody kept speculating on who de Gaulle’s heir would be. But de Gaulle’s real heir was the nuclear arms that have allowed France to follow its own foreign policy.” That explains why a former journalist and entrenched Gaullist insists on referring to the French defence system as "la dauphine."