NOW IT'S France's turn to worry about arms control. With the signing of the INF treaty removing all U.S. and Soviet intermediate and shorter-range nuclear missiles in Europe, the spotlight shifts to America's allies -- particularly France, the only country in Western Europe with a strong pro-nuclear popular consensus. France, which has its own nuclear deterrent, was the most adamantly opposed to the treaty, fearing that it could be "the first step toward the denuclearization of Europe."

Despite Mikhail Gorbachev's "new thinking," the French remain suspicious of Soviet intentions. In fact, says Harvard Professor Stanley Hoffman, "they are saying Gorbachev is more dangerous than his predecessors. He has the same goals, but is more skillful in trying to attain them." The French are also uneasy about their once arch-enemy, now closest ally, West Germany. The Germans seem tempted by the Soviet offer to follow up on the INF treaty's "double-zero agreement" -- eliminating both medium-range (600 to 3500 miles) and shorter-range missiles (300 to 600 miles) -- with negotiations for a "triple zero," eliminating "tactical" or "battlefield" nuclear weapons as well. The French are further dismayed by Ronald Reagan's dream of eliminating all nuclear weapons. "Nuclear weapons are not evil," said one French official, "Peace in Europe depends on the existence of nuclear weapons."

Peace in Europe also depends on the continued presence of the United States. French forces, says Foreign Minister Jean-Bernard Raimond, "cannot be a substitute for American nuclear arms." But the prospect of removing the only American missiles capable of striking the Soviet Union from western Europe has made the French more determined than ever to assert their own role in Europe's defense.

What options do the French have?

They can continue to modernize and expand their nuclear forces. These forces now consist of 18 launchers for missiles which are, in the U.S.-Soviet sense, medium-range but are, in the French sense, strategic since they can hit the Soviet Union; six missile-carrying submarines with a similar range, each with 16 launchers; and over 130 nuclear-capable aircraft, 18 equipped with new ASMP air-to-ground missiles, the rest with bombs. On the "tactical" level, what the French call "pre-strategic," there are 30 launchers for Pluton missiles, with a range of about 70 miles, to be joined in the early 1990s by the new Hades missile, with a range of about 200 miles, plus aircraft.

They can continue to increase military cooperation with their allies. Recent proposals to the British involve joint development of an improved ASMP and joint targeting for nuclear submarines. Recent gestures to the Germans include joint maneuvers and plans for a joint brigade and joint production of a combat helicopter.

They can explore the new realities that flow from the treaty. The only bright spot the French see is the possibility that the INF agreement might lead to what Prime Minister Jacques Chirac has described as France's "prime objective" -- a "reduction of American and Soviet strategic weapons." A 50 percent cut, he points out, "would in fact take us back to the position as it was 10 years ago," with each superpower keeping 5,000-6,000 nuclear warheads. (France, by comparison, has about 300 warheads.)

The prospect of other negotiations, however, evokes no enthusiasm. The French are clearly opposed to any move toward a third zero, eliminating tactical nuclear weapons, and are likely, with U.S. concurrence, to block such talks. On conventional arms some experts think the French might accept an agreement calling for really deep cuts on the Soviet side; a more widespread view is that while the French might go to talks in Vienna just to keep the Germans happy, they would never sign such an agreement because the Russians could reintroduce forces quickly, while the Americans, across an ocean, could not. France totally rejects the idea of combining talks on nuclear and conventional weapons or offering concessions on the former for cuts in the latter.

One of the options France is keeping up her sleeve is the neutron bomb. French President Francois Mitterand recently noted that the tests were completed and France could produce the neutron bomb at any time. He hinted that if the international situation turned sour, France might be forced, "unhappily," to proceed. He startled observers by remarking that the neutron bomb resembled conventional artillery shells more closely than the nuclear bomb used at Hiroshima. The Russians -- Mitterand's intended audience -- quickly registered their disagreement with his assessment

At the center of French concern is the perennial problem of Germany. France's efforts to reassure the Germans and draw them away from the temptations of denuclearization and neutralism have produced a spate of proposals and rumors. One idea involves a French guarantee of nuclear protection to Germany. While Mitterand has avoided such a commitment, preferring to let Germany rely upon NATO as a whole, Prime Minister Chirac, a possible rival in next year's presidential election, recently edged closer to an all-out commitment. He asserted that if Germany were attacked, France's response would be "immediate and without reservation." Another idea is that the French would move their troops closer to the East German border, essentially creating a human "tripwire" for French nuclear retaliation. French officials, however, say that it is much more likely that elements of the new French Rapid Deployment Force would be moved forward only in time of crisis.

A third possibility is that France would move tactical nuclear weapons into Germany. Mitterand referred obliquely to this idea while visiting Germany in October in one of his characteristic Delphic utterances and diplomats have been trying to figure out his meaning ever since. All agree that by implying that French nuclear warheads "should not fall on German soil," he was trying to reassure the Germans. Beyond that, theories abound. Mitterand may have meant that the Plutons and Hades would not be used; or he may have meant that these tactical missiles would be moved to Germany, so that if they were ever launched, the Hades, at least, would land somewhere east of Germany. It has even been suggested that Mitterand may have been staking out a different position from Chirac by implying that he might not be averse to a deal removing the tactical nuclear weapons if pressed to do so by the Americans and the Germans.

There is no doubt, however, that Mitterand meant to be ambiguous. Ambiguity is, in a sense, the heart of France's nuclear deterrent. The force de frappe is far more threatening if an adversary is not sure of what might provoke its use. The French, whose missiles are targeted on cities, rather than on missiles as the superpowers' forces are, have relied on the threat of destruction of large populations to deter Soviet aggression. "We'll take off an arm," the saying goes. Despite Mitterand's flirtation with the neutron bomb -- sometimes called the most "usable" nuclear weapon -- the French have not yet been drawn into discussions of nuclear "war-fighting" as the Americans have. If they were, they might find their popular consensus breaking down.

Almost no one in France expects nuclear weapons to be used. The French expect nuclear weapons to deter, as they have done so far. And the French plan to maintain that position, even if it makes France odd man out in Europe -- as long as its pro-nuclear consensus lasts. The question is whether that consensus will hold if the INF treaty produces a new wave of European anti-nuclear sentiment directed at France's force de frappe.

Madeleine Kalb is a Visitor at the Russian Research Center at Harvard University.