IN THE LATEST EXCHANGE of reproaches between Washington and Paris, everyone was running true to form. The Europeans had been correctly informed, they discovered, that the new American secretary of state, Edmund Muskie, is not a man to suffer in silence. First, he said with asperity, the French "lectured" him last Friday on the need for close and careful consultation. Then, without a word to anyone, they trotted off to a meeting in Warsaw on Monday with Leonid Brezhnev.The French foreign minister, Jean Francois-Poncet, sharply replied to Mr Muskie that France "does not need the permission of the president of the United States to go out of doors." As a rebuttal, that was in the spirit of the whole affair -- factually accurate and irrelevant.
So the temperature has dropped two degrees. Does it make any difference? Americans and Frenchmen have been needling each other publicly across the Atlantic for a long time, one could argue, and yet the alliance has endured sturdily. But it's worth considering at least the possibility that circumstances are changing, and that the political effects of theses exchanges of unpleasantries may be rising. It's not as though this alliance were, at this moment, following a visible and well-marked consensus.
There are widespread doubts in Europe that the Carter administration knows where it is going, in its responses to the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Precisely because a lot of Americans share those doubts, there is a certain ambivalence here toward European qualms and foot-dragging.
If Americans were clearer about their own purposes abroad, perhaps they would be less exasperated by a French performance that is, after all, pretty much in the French tradition. But in the present atmosphere, abrasive comments carry farther than they used to -- and leave more of an impression.
French officials complain that Mr. Muskie is acting like a man in domestic politics. That is hardly surprising since Mr Muskie has spent a lifetime in elective office and, not incidentally, there's a presidential election coming in this country in six months. There's also a presidential election coming in France in 10 months; the campaign there is well under way, and President Giscard d'Estaing's display of summitry in Warsaw was not unrelated to it. Domestic politics and foreign policy are not going to be very far apart in either country, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
But it would be a mistake to assume that Atlantic alliance, having withstood a good deal of internal irritation in the past, now has an unlimited tolerance for that sort of thing.