Guess who are not too far apart on basic economic issues? French President Francois Mitterrand and some of President Reagan's chief economic advisers, that's who. Despite well-publicized disagreements between France and the United States, advertised as leading to a clash at the summit here this weekend, Mitterrand and some of the Reagan team see eye to eye on the major question of cutting the U.S. deficit.
To be sure, all is not sweetness and light between France and the United States. It is not generally known, but just after Mitterrand's election two years ago, French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson journeyed to Washington and literally begged Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan for a promise to intervene, when necessary, to bolster the French franc.
But, an insider relates, "Cheysson was sent packing." And as the economy worsened under the Socialist program, the French have become increasingly bitter. They can remember a different American attitude: In 1974, after Giscard d'Estaing's election, they got a secret promise of help from the U.S. Federal Reserve, which was carried out with the aid of the German Bundesbank.
So tensions have been growing. They were exacerbated in the aftermath of the Versailles summit last year, when Mitterrand and Reagan exchanged charges of broken promises--even duplicity--at that session.
Then, just three weeks ago, Mitterrand invited 100 foreign and finance ministers who were meeting in Paris to an Elysee Palace reception--presumably for a handshake, a drink and some cordial chatter.
What they got, while standing in one of the ornate Elysee ballrooms, was a speech calling for a conference "at the highest level" to restore the fixed-rate international monetary system that prevailed from the end of World War II through the 1971--although Mitterrand knows this is completely contrary to American policy.
Mitterrand's odd performance--no doubt a reflection of current frustrations over troubles at home--was hardly the way to 'win friends and influence people.' Snapped a Belgian diplomat who didn't like to be kept standing for 55 minutes: "When someone plans to lecture you for that long, the least he can do is to provide you a chair."
But what Mitterrand is really after is a new willingness of the U.S. government to reduce its prospective budget deficits in later years. If the red ink flows as planned, Mitterrand feels, the global recovery won't last, unemployment will stay at high levels, and social unrest--already out in the open in France--will explode.
Nonetheless, "we are not looking for a confrontation at Williamsburg ," the French ambassador to Washington, Bernard Vernier-Palliez, assured reporters a few days ago. "The summit is not the place for confrontation. We think the heads of state should leave their ideologies in the cloakroom."
This would suit the Americans, as well, who are anxious to have a quiet--even a dull--summit. There is a willingness, moreover, to undertake a cautious study of the world's monetary system by the seven finance ministers.
To be sure, that won't settle Mitterrand's real gripe, which--in contrast to his demand for a global monetary conference--is supported throughout Europe and Asia. What worries everyone is the devastating impact on the world economy of $200 billion annual American budget deficits stretching as far as the eye can see.
This is the French analysis of the current economic situation: The fragile economic recovery that may be getting under way now--with the United States in the lead--will not be strong enough to bring unemployment--32 million in the industrial world--down to politically acceptable levels. The fear in Europe is that, because of the prospect of continued American deficits, interest rates will turn up, cutting the recovery short. Instead, the recovery needs to be pushed along and extended, and the only way to do that is to assure lower interest rates.
"If we have a short recovery," said Vernier-Palliez, "we'll all be in a terrible mess two or three years from now. What we need is a long, stable recovery."
Europeans also contend that high interest rates caused by these American deficits suck away capital from Europe and elsewhere. Not only is the U.S. deficit thus partially financed by overseas money--which then can't be invested at home--but the expensive dollar is a burden for countries like France that pay for oil and some other imports in dollars.
From a purely selfish American viewpoint, they add, Reagan should understand that the overvalued dollar limits U.S. export potential, exacerbating protectionist tendencies. Moreover, higher interest rates increase the burden on the Third World debtor countries, which desperately have to find a way of increasing their exports.
To be sure, this analysis doesn't deal with Europe's own economic problems, which are many--including aging factories, excessively high and rigid wage rates, lagging private investment and costly welfare programs.
But the European analysis of the impact of the American deficit on the global economy tallies closely with the private view of at least two high Reagan administration officials, who believe that the administration must put $45 billion to $50 billion in additional taxes on the books by Jan. 1, 1985, or risk an economic crisis. The taxes would be "triggered off" later if the deficit falls below some designated level.
The White House said firmly after a story in The Washington Post last week that such a "trigger off" tax plan does not yet have the president's blessing.
That's correct--the president cringes at the thought, buttressed in his anti-tax philosophy by conservative White House political aides who tout the right-wing litany that higher tax revenue will be dissipated by "big spenders" in Congress.
That's precisely why some Reagan economic advisers, although they can't say so publicly, hope Mitterrand and other heads of government will hit the issue hard, perhaps impressing the president during this summit weekend with the political danger of record American budget deficits.