Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie and French Foreign Minister Jean Francois-Poncet yesterday patched up their dispute over the recent French-Soviet summit, but made little headway in averting a potential clash between the United States and its European allies over the Middle East.
At a news conference, Francois-Ponet revealed that, despite strong U.S. objections, the nine members of the European Economic Community are likely to come forward in the next few weeks with an initiative supporting principle of Palestinian self-determination and the right of the Palestine Liberation Organization to participate in the Mideast peace process.
Although Francois-Ponet insisted that the European move is not intended as "harmful" to U.S. policy, the Carter administration fears it could do incalculable damage to hopes of reviving the stalemated Egyptian-Israeli talkes on autonomy for the Palestinian residents of Israeli-occupied territories.
If the European initiative takes the form of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Palestinian rights, the effect would be to put Washington and its allies on a collision course that almost certainly would end in a U.S. veto of the resolution.
But, while neither the United States nor France outwardly seemed giving any ground in the Mideast rift, both Muskie and Francois-Ponet did go out of their way yesterday to project an attitude of friendliness and cooperation aimed at smoothing over the tensions caused two weeks ago, when French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing arranged a meeting in Warsaw with Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnez without consulting France's allies.
At a May 20 news conference, Muskie criticized France in unusually strong terms and, without mentioning him by name, made clear that he was especially irritated at Francois-Ponet, with whom he had met in Vienna just before the Giscard-Brezhnev summit meeting was announced.
In the Vienna meeting, Francois-Ponet reportedly lectured the new U.S. secretary about the importance of advance consultation on major diplomatic initiatives, but did not tell Muskie that France secretly was planning the Poland summit. That caused Muskie in his news conference to remark tartly:
"I'm concerned that when I was being given a lecture on consultation, the lecturer was not inclinded to practice what he was preaching."
However, the asperity was swept aside yesterday when Francois-Ponet, in the United States on a private visit to receive an honorary degree Sunday from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, stopped by the State Department for lunch and a lengthy meeting with Muskie.
Afterward, the two appeared before reporters briefly, smiling broadly and describing their talks in such glowing terms as "open," "friendly," "detailed" and "exceptionally useful."
Later, meeting with reporters at the French Embassy, Francois-ponet said he had been under orders not to tell Muskie about the Warsaw summit during their Vienna meeting because Giscard wanted to inform President Carter of it personally. That wasn't done, though, until after word of the Giscard-Brezhnez meeting already had become public.
Francois-Ponet explained the delay by saying that France did not expect the meeting, which was to discuss the Soviet occupaton of Afghanistan, to produce any immediate results, and added: "We felt early public information would raise expectations around the world which we knew the meeting would not fulfill, and we thought it better not to raise expectations unnecessarily."
Referring to Muskie's annoyance, Francois-Ponet said, "I understand the reaction of Secretary Muskie and others who weren't informed. I told him so. I think he now understands."
In regard to the Middle East initiative, of which France is the principal exponent, Francois-Ponet said there was a growing feeling within the European community, especially in view of the paralysis now affecting the autonomy talks, that the West Europeans should try to take up some of the slack by meeting the demand in the Arab world for progress on the Palestinian question.
If the situation is allowed to drift, he warned, "the trend toward radicalism and instability in the whole area will become a major source of trouble for all of us."
He added that he believes a European move "would be both necessary and useful" before the U.S. elections in the fall, but he also noted that the nine have not yet reached any agreement about the form or the precise timing of their proposed intiative.
That left the unspoken hint that Washington and the allies are serching for a compromise formula that would allow the Europeans to delay their initiative somewhat longer or perhaps put it in a form like a declaration of policy by the EEC rather than a U.N. resolution.
Further weights was given to that idea last night by a senior U.S. official, familiar with yesterday's talks. He said the United States was making strenuous efforts to persuade the Europeans that their initiative would be counterproductive to the peace process and, while conceding that Washington doesn't know precisely what the nine will do, the official added that the European initiative "won't be offered tomorrow."
In the meantime, the official added, the United States is working hard tryin to come up with a formula that will overcome the snag affecting the autonomy talks -- Egyptian and Isaeli disputes over the status of Jerusalem -- in a way that will get the negotiations moving again.
If the talks can be resumed in a way where they are perceived to be making progress, however slow and limited, the official implied, there will be a much better chance of convincing the Europeans of the advisability of delaying their initiative beyond the point where it poses an imminent danger to the U.S.-led process.