Behind the customary public silence of European government on U.S. presidential politics is a grudging preference for President Carter in what is still seen primarily as an unsatisfactory choice between the Democratic incumbent and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.

What emerges from interviews with government officials, politicians and well-informed analysts in European capitals is far from a warm endorsement of Carter or even the usual preference for an incumbent and the continuity of established policies.

Carter is still strongly criticized for a confusing and inconsistent foreign policy and for a perceived failure to provide cohesive leadership.

Few European officials or analysts expect dramatic improvement from their point of view during a second Carter administration. Many of them also fear that national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski could become Carter's secretary of state and gain the upper hand for what is frequently seen as an excessively confrontational view of both allied and East-West problems.

They expressed greater concern, however, about the possible impact of a Reagan presidency on the foreign policy issues that now matter most in Europe: the fate of SALT II and other arms control negotiations specifically and detente in general, the changing relationship between the United States and its allies, the search for Middle East peace, and overtures by the Western industrialized nations to the Third World.

They fear that what they regard as Reagan's simplistic view of these issues, belligerent approach to the Soviet Union and overall inexperience and naivete in foreign affairs would, at best, delay progress on these fronts. They believe it would take time for Reagan, like Carter before him, to readjust his views.

At worst, in the words of a prominent British foreign policy analyst familiar with the thinking of Britain's top diplomats and foreign affairs experts, "the general feeling here is that Reagan would be a pretty fair disaster, that there would be a lot of loose shots from the hip before he learned to shoot straight.

"Nobody's happy about another term for Carter," he said. "But there is a feeling he has improved somewhat after learning a lot the hard way. With Reagan, they see a lack of needed East-West negotiations on arms control and other important things -- a return to cold war that is seen here as unnecessary and based on an overly simple view of the world."

A highly placed French official said Reagan would need a "two-year apprenticeship" during which nothing could be expected to happen on questions like arms control. Reagan also understands little about the present dynamics of the Atlantic Alliance, in this French officials's opinion, and would wrongly expect the allies to simply follow his tough line toward the Soviet Union.

Dominique Moisi, assistant director of the French Institute of International Relations, said he detected a shift in the attitude of the French government toward favoring Carter beginning this summer. This occurred despite angry U.S.-French disagreements earlier in the year over the allied reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a traditional French preference for Republicans in the White House, and the expectation in Paris that Reagan would wind up conducting his foreign policy through familiar and welcome appointees from the Nixon and Ford administrations.

In Bonn, West Germany Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has never liked Carter personally and has clashed with him on occasion.Nevertheless, West German officials believe the two have now evolved a workable relationship. They point to more harmonious if unstructured coordination among the allies in their response to the Persian Gulf war and broad agreement on priorities in pressing East-West negotiations.

Schmidt has become too cautious to endorse Carter publicly, however, remembering the embarrassment that resulted from his expressed preference for the reelection of then-president Gerald Ford in 1976.

Like other European leaders, Schmidt badly wants SALT II ratified. West German officials noted that Carter has promised to try to push it through the Senate immediately if he is reelected, while Reagan has said he would shelve or try to renegotiate the agreement because he believes it to be "fatally flawed."

West German officials believe the ratification of SALT II is a necessary step in the arms-control process, a view that is shared by the British government.Britain's foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, said in a major speech on arms control here last week that "the loss of momentum in SALT" already has detrimentally affected these and other arms-control goals.

In smaller NATO nations such as Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands, there is already considerable opposition to the Carter administration's modernization of NATO nuclear weapons in Europe. These countries could become outspokenly hostile to the stepped-up arms race Reagan has said he would pursue to force the Soviet Union to negotiate more on his terms.

Danish Prime Minister Anker Jorgensen "has said he will not be associated with a new arms race," according to a Danish official. He said Reagan's views on defense and East-West relations posed a "psychological problem" for the smaller nations committed to nuclear arms reduction and a less confrontational approach to world problems.

European governments also would like to see a new East-West conference on European disarmament grow out of the 35-nation talks in Madrid to review progress under the 1975 Helsinki agreement to advance detente in Europe. The conference formally begins Nov. 11.

The Carter administration and its Western European allies have also been divided on a strategy for lasting Middle East peace. The Europeans -- particularly the nine-nation European Community -- believe it is necessary to push Israel to accept a role for the stateless Palestinians, and perhaps the Palestine Liberation Organization, in the talks. Many European diplomats fear that a Reagan administration would be even more difficult to convince of this. They note that Reagan sees Israel first as an important U.S. ally in East-West competition and the PLO only as an anti-Western terrorist group.

Despite the present distraction of the Iraqi-Iranian war, European diplomats still believe that solution of the Palestinian question, alongside a secure Israel, is the key to long-range stability in the Middle East and those who hope Carter is reelected hope that he might be free in a second term to join the allies in a more flexible approach to the Palestinians and put pressure on the Israelis to go along.

Although European diplomats are by no means certain this message is reaching the most influential foreign policy aides in the Carter administration, they are less optimistic about getting through to Reagan, at least at first.

"Reagan would have to spend a couple of years learning about [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin's obduracy and meeting some Arabs he liked," said a Conservative Party politician here who has followed the U.S. campaign closely. "And it would take time for him to discover that the Third World's problems can't be solved by sending in the Marines."

By no means do all European analysts prefer Carter, however. Some conservative analysts and business leaders favor the old Nixon-Ford administration team that Reagan appears to be gathering closer to him. For instance, the weekly news journal The Economist here judged Reagan to be a "better listener" than Carter with "a sounder structure of advice" and "a firmer line abroad" that would make him the better president.

A director of a leading British investment bank, who said he personally likes neither Carter nor Reagan, thought that Reagan's likely Cabinet team of former Nixon hands and more optimistic approach to economic problems would increase confidence in the U.S. economy even if there was not that much change in substance from the Carter administration's already monetarist approach. Other businessmen here also said they would welcome a change from Carter's "negativism."

Otherwise, however, European officials remain equally skeptical about the effectiveness of either the Carter or Reagan approach to economic and energy issues. They doubt Carter's capacity to hold down inflation and protect the dollar, and they deride Reagan's plans to simultaneously cut taxes, raise defense spending and balance the federal budget.

To them, Reagan does not seem to understand the world's long-range energy problems, while they are not convinced that Carter's patchwork strategy for oil and gas prices, energy conservation and development of alternative energy sources will work. European experts still see Americans as selfishly profligate in energy consumption and lacking the leadership to make drastic changes.

Overall, European governments, while privately tilting toward Carter, are ambivalent about Tuesday's vote. They vacillate between grumbling about weak U.S. policies and fearing they will be forced to toe too tough a U.S. line. u"The same people who complained about Carter's lack of leadership," said one allied policy analyst here, "are now complaining that Reagan may try to supply too much leadership."