THE TRADE embargo against the Soviet Union was an American idea, and has never been popular in Europe. A dispatch from Paris, in this newspaper yesterday, reported European accusations that the United States has been deliberately and widely violating its own grain export rules. As the dispatch also pointed out, those accusations are based on distorted figures. But their very inaccuracy is a measure of the emotions engaged in, especially, France. As the embargo moves into its second year, it will become more onerous for the Soviets, who cannot continue indefinitely to draw down their grain stocks. But the embargo will also become more divisive within the Western alliance. The United States is not the only country in which farm exports are a political issue.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Europeans generally were not eager to attempt any retaliation. Several countries declined to take part in the Olympic boycott, on grounds that it would be futile. They have cooperated with the embargo, but they have pointed out -- accurately -- that it bears more heavily on the Western European economy, and its extensive trade with the East, than on the United States. France is one of the very few wheat-growing nations that had a big harvest this year, and it is understandably eager to sell to the biggest and most anxious bidder. The current French campaign of derogation of the embargo is rooted in a clear national interest.

But, as we observed in this space yesterday, the grain embargo is not an ineffective device. Inevitably there has been leakage, but not nearly as much as the Europeans contend. True, some American grain has been shipped to the Soviet Union over the past year. To end the pattern of highly disruptive Soviet raids on the American market, the two governments agreed several years ago to a continuous minimum sale of eight million tons annually. From the beginning, that sale was exempt from the embargo and, although it is prominent in the European list of complaints, there has been nothing surreptitious about it. Over the past year the Russians would otherwise have bought a good deal more from this country; the embargo imposed a degree of uncertainty and cost on them. In the months ahead, they will be further constrained by bad harvests in some of the countries that are their alternative sources -- notably Argentina and Australia.

By early next summer, grain stocks will be lower, in proportion to consumption, than they were in the severe worldwide shortages of the early 1970s. It will mean less meat for Russians and more inflation for Americans. In less fortunate countries, it probably will mean wider malnutrition and higher death rates. The world is once again about to be reminded of the price of its repeated failure to establish adequate world grain reserves for the years -- like this one -- of bad harvests.