France said today it would not attend a planned meeting of allied foreign ministers in Bonn this month, publicly breaking the U.S.-sought united front against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
An angry French statement against U.S. efforts to coordinate allied sanctions against the Soviets indicated that France is trying to signal Moscow that it is not lining up behind Washington.
[In Washington, senior State Department officials expressed surprise and dismay at the French action. One of them said U.S.-French relations are "as low as they have been for a long time." The department later announced that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance will hold bilateral talks in Bonn Feb. 20. It was thought he may also visit other capitals.]
The French accused the Americans of high-handedness in trying to organize an allied conference during Vance's visit to Bonn, assuming French participation, along with the West Germans, British and Italians, without having consulted Paris.
"France is entirely in agreement with a meeting for consultation but not with a meeting for confrontation," said a French Foreign Ministry spokesman.Other French officials said they were also stunned by the choice of Feb. 20 as the date for the meeting since that is the expiration of the one-month ultimatum President Carter gave the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan or else the United States would seek a boycott of the Olympic games -- a step France rejects.
It is apparent from this episode that the French and Americans have not even been talking to each other lately. French officials noted that they were reacting to Washington-datelined reports sent out by three news agencies. Asked why they did not check back with Washington officials about the U.S. position instead of reacting to press reports, one French official said:
"We know perfectly well where those agency reports came from. We checked on that.And if that's the way the Americans want to test us, we'll answer in the same way. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander."
Another French official asked when the Americans are going to learn "how relations between the Americans and the European powers can be established." He spoke of Washington's "imperial conception of leadership."
The French appear to perceive a U.S. effort to force or trick them into attending a meeting to discuss reprisals against the Soviets that France has already openly rejected.
French sources explained that when West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher was in Paris earlier this week for the semiannual Franco-German summit, he asked French Foreign Minister Jean Francois-Poncet whether he would attend an informal dinner in Bonn on Feb. 20 with Vance and British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington.
Francois-Poncet, the French said, agreed "In principle" and expected to hear back from Genscher. The next thing they knew, the French said, was that the quiet little dinner that their minister had talked about was to be transformed by the Americans into a major anti-Soviet conference, with the Italians along, too. News agency reports were coming from Tokyo that Japan and Canada were also being invited.
West German spokesman Klaus Boelling said today that Bonn "does not want to talk anyone into a meeting he doesn't want," Washington Post correspondent Bradley Graham reported from Bonn.
French sensitivities nevertheless continued to be aroused. A spokesman for the presidency complained about U.S. insistence on sanctions against the Soviet Union just as the Americans announced without informing their allies the postponement of sanctions against Iran.
"For two months you people told us how essential those sanctions were against Iran, and we went along and did everything possible" he said. "But the day you change your minds, you don't even bother to call us. So why be surprised that we won't attend a meeting on sanctions for Russia that everyone already knows we oppose."
The most explicit statement of French opposition came Tuesday, when President Valery Giscard d'Estaing called in French reporters to explain that the tough-sounding language of a Franco-German declaration about the Soviets in Afghanistan did not really mean what it appeared to mean.
Bonn correspondent Graham said West German officials professed not to be upset by Giscard's remarks, saying they believed he was toning down the declaration for domestic consumption.
As it was, the declaration simply said that East-West detente would not withstand another shock like Afghanistan and that France and West Germany would coordinate their response with their other allies if another such shock came. As Prof. Alfred Grosser, a Sorbonne political scientist, put it, "Weak parents or teachers tell the children, 'Next time you do that, I'll get really angry.'"
State Department expressions of satisfaction with the Franco-German statement, even though it did not mention the United States, drew headlines in Europe. Department spokesman Hodding Carter said that "next steps" might include foreign ministers' discussions on what Americans and European "can most practically do together as well as independently."
White House spokesman Jody Powell spoke of the statement as a "constructive contribution" to be "followed up at a high level."
Meanwhile, French reporters were asking whether Giscard would meet with Carter and other allied leaders. Giscard replied, "I'm surprised at the insistence of certain people to push us -- unsuccessfully, by the way -- toward alignment with the ideas of this one or that one, that is to say, the reconstitution of the system of blocs that increase tension on one hand and on the other eliminate the margin for maneuver and the influence of France's foreign policy . . . Any meeting that would result in a bloc approach to the current situation will not win French participation."
It was a more polite way of saying, as Foreign Minister Francois-Poncet had earlier in the crisis, "France is not America's barnyard."
Some other equally authoritative French officials have said France in reality is backing the United States more effectively than the British, who they say have made themselves diplomatically useless by simply lining up behind the United States.
But nobody in Paris is really sure what French policy is. A French defense intellectual complained halfway through the crisis that his country had pronounced "five foreign policies in three weeks."
Today, the French announced that Giscard had sent letters to President Carter and to Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev explaining the Franco-German document. Asked if the two leaders were getting the same text, a French official laughed.