The future of the "Paris-Bonn axis," which has dominated Western Europe in the perceived absence here of U.S. leadership by the Carter administration, was at the center of talks here today between visiting West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
They met the week before Schmidt is scheduled to go to Washington to test the American mood since the election of Ronald Reagan. Schmidt is to see President Carter and also is hoping to be the first European official to see the president-elect.
The French and West German leaders took a break in their talks for radio as the reestablishment of a strong United States that is, in Giscard's words, "determined to assume fully its internatonal responsibilities." This, he said, makes it even more necessary to put an end to the "anomaly," which he said has existed since the end of World War II, of the "self-effacement of Europe in the affairs of the world."
France, Giscard siad, will now strengthen its cooperation with Britain and Italy and "very obviously with West Germany, which, for reasons of the past and the present, is and will remain our first partner."
Between "a strong America and a Europe guaranteed of its power and its role there should now be established a dialogue" about how to ensure world peace and freedom, the French president said. Schmidt expressed his full agreement and added that the dangers of the 1980s call for close cooperation between France and West Germany, then among Europeans and finally with the United States.
French officials have let it be known that when Giscard and Schmidt met in West Germany in July, they bet on the U.S. elections, with the French leader betting on Reagan and the West Germany on Carter, despite Schmidt's widely reported dislike for the American incumbent.
Officials on both sides of the Rhine recognize, however, that it was thanks to the real or perceived vacuum created by Carter that France and West Germany were able to form a working relationship that has served as the informal board of governors of the nine-member European Community. This arrangement has left Britain, Western Europe's other major power, out of the inner club that set the tone, among other things, for the accommodating Western European attitude toward the Soviet Union.
There are signs that mutually shared anxieties about Reagan's approach to Moscow may lead to an opening of the door of the inner club to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She is going to Bonn to see Schmidt two days before his departure for Washington, meaning that the chancellor will in effect be going to the United States as the spokesman for Western Europe.
The chancellor indicated the importance he attaches to his U.S. visit by postponing until his return the traditional general policy statement of the new government he formed after his recent reelection. He is apparently hoping to return with somethng important to say.
Despite tonight's warm welcome for renewed American determination, French analysts say they expect Schmidt, who has a heavy political investment in arms control, disarmament and East-West detente generally, to have the most trouble of the major European allied leaders coming to terms with Reagan's stated intention of strengthening Western defenses before resuming arms limitation talks with Moscow.
French officials profess to be quite comfortable with the idea that Reagan will rearm first and talk later.
"We want to be intermediaries between the Americans and the Russians," said a top French strategist. "That gives France an interest in a strong America. A weak America makes us slide toward the Soviet side rather than being able to maneuver between the two."
The French view is that with Reagan's election, it is time to return to the idea first proposed by president Charles de Gaulle of an inner directorate for the alliance, an approach consistently rejected by U.S. presidents until Carter accepted a summit at Guadeloupe with Giscard, Schmidt and British Labor prime minister James Callaghan in January 1979. Having achieved their ambition to be at the table with the Anglo-Saxon duo, the French and West German leaders backed away from what they both privately indicated was horrow over Carter's lack of grasp of Iran and other problems.
The Paris-Bonn tandem's rejection of Carter's leadership culminated in Giscard and Schmidt's active resistance to Washington's call for sanctions against Moscow for its invasion of Afghanistan.
Giscard for some time apparently has been putting out discreet feelers to the Reagan camp, although the future candidate was virtually snubbed when he visited France two years ago. The highest French official who would receive him then was Olivier Stirn, a deputy foreign minister who does not hold full Cabinet rank.
More recently, however, Giscard has been seeing his old friend, former treasury secretary Charles Shultz, who called on him early this summer and again on Oct. 24, less than two weeks before the election. That lunch was kept so secret that it was not even put on the presidential schedule distributed only to his staff. Comments by French officials since then indicate that Giscard got the strong impression that Shultz is the most likely person to become secretary of state and that the French leader found that reassuring.