SECRETARY OF State Edmund Muskie has a lot to learn about diplomacy and there is no better place to start than with the French.
Last week he made a boo-boo by attacking President Giscard d'Estaing for meeting with Leonid Brezhnev in Warsaw without first telling the United States. What irked Muskie most is that he had not received a dressing down from the French foreign minister because the United States was failing to consult with France.
The other item that got the secretary's dander up was France's decision to go to the Olympics in Moscow.
What Muskie must learn is what any tourist who has been to Paris knows, and that is, if you want to get the French to do something, you have to indicate that you desire them to do the exact opposite.
For example, when the secretary was in Brussels he should have taken Foreign Minister Jean Francois-Poncet aside (the French love to be taken aside and whispered to) and said, "Mr. Minister, I must tell you this in the strictest confidence. We want the French to go to the Olympics in Moscow because we believe your athletes are the only ones who can beat the Russians. President Carter has asked me to instruct you that no matter what he says publicly, he believes privately it is in the best interests of the West if you compete."
Francois-Poncet would have said, "Of course we want to do what's best for the West. We will send a team." Then he would have excused himself and got on the scrambler line to President Giscard.
"Monsieur le President, I have just spoken to Secretary of State Muskie, and he informs me that the U.S. wants France to go to the Moscow Olympics."
"Alors. This means of course we cannot go. Are you sure they want us to attend?"
"Yes. Monsieur Muskie took me aside and told me it is in the best interests of the Allies if the French appear at the Games."
"We shall see what is in the best interests of the West. If Carter thinks we will go to Moscow just because he wants us to, then he will be very disappointed. Frankly, Jean, I intended to send our team, but now if I wanted to I couldn't as we would only be playing into American hands."
"Exactly my thoughts, Monsieur le President. Muskie must take us for fools."
"What did you tell him?"
"I told him we would gladly send a team to the Olympics if the U.S. thought it was the right thing to do."
"Good. Tomorrow I will announce we have no intention of sending one and never did. I shall say France intended to boycott Moscow long before the United States thought of the idea."
"I can't wait to see Muskie's face when you do it. Do you intend to meet with Leonid Brezhnev in Warsaw, Monsieur le President?"
"I haven't made up my mind yet. What do the Americans want me to do?"
"I will find out and report back."
Francois-Poncet would then go back to the foreign ministers' meeting and take Muskie off into a corner (the French always like to take people off into corners) and say, "I have just spoken to Giscard and he wants to know how the Americans would feel if he met privately with Brezhnev in Warsaw?"
Muskie should have said, "An excellent idea. It's best to keep communications open and who would be better at it than Giscard. Tell your president to arrange a meeting as quickly as possible."
Once again Francois-Poncet would excuse himself and get on the line to Giscard.
The French foreign minister would say, "They want you to meet Leonid as soon as possible."
Giscard would say, "What gall! How dare the Americans tell the head of the French Republic who and who not to meet with! I will go to Warsaw, but I will turn my back on Brezhnev and refuse to so much as shake his hand."
"Well said, Monsieur le President. It may be a slap in the face to the Russians, but it will be a bigger slap in the face for the Americans. Vive la France!"
"Viva la France to you, Jean."
So there you have it, Secretary Muskie. This is your first lesson in dealing with the French. It you tell them what you don't wish them to do, they'll do it every time. That's why they're called French.