French Trade Minister Michel Jobert warned the United States yesterday that an effort to frustrate Western European commitments to buy natural gas from the Soviet Union would likely be taken as "an unfriendly gesture" by the Soviets, exacerbating tensions between the two superpowers.
In an interview at the French Embassy in the middle of a round of trade talks with U.S. officials, Jobert acknowledged that France "is not happy" at the prospect of having to depend on the Soviet Union for one- third of its natural gas supplies.
But he rejected the argument made by the Reagan administration--reiterated over the weekend by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger--that the dependence is excessive, estimating that it will amount to less than 5 percent of total French energy supplies.
Jobert's comments on the gas pipeline and supply issue illustrated one phase of the growing strain between Europe and the United States on economic and security issues. He said that the government of France is uncomfortable to be caught between the competing interests in Europe of the Washington and Moscow.
Jobert, here on a get-acquainted mission, met yesterday with Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, U.S. Trade Ambassador William E. Brock, officials at the State Department, and was Brock's guest last night at a Blair House dinner.
He said in the interview that in one previous exchange of "gospels" with Brock, he had gotten the impression that the United States "wanted free trade, free enterprise, and 'free everything' for the benefit of America, and I said to him that we wanted a situation that permits everybody to live more decently."
As to American complaints that France unfairly subsidizes its export trade, Jobert said, "In that matter, I am going to argue that nobody is perfect . . . To me, the United States very often appears to be a very protectionist country."
On the increasingly sensitive issue of buying natural gas from the Soviets, Jobert bluntly said that the United States had not come forward to offer France the gas it requires over the next half-dozen years, after which it believes there will be a worldwide surplus.
"But we need energy now ," Jobert said, "and where are we going to find it? We need it in order to earn our own living--and we're not going to stop earning our living." On Sunday, Weinberger said that the United States still intends to do what it can to stop the construction of an $11 billion gas pipeline to bring natural gas from the Soviet Union to Western Europe.
Jobert said that if the United States attempts to place export restraints on sophisticated equipment for the pipeline, "it could be delayed by as much as two years. But the Russians are going ahead with this project; it is going to be done."
France earlier this month agreed to advance credits to the Soviet Union to help in the construction, angering both West Germany and the United States.
Asked if a U.S. effort to block equipment for the pipeline would be taken by France as an unfriendly gesture, Jobert turned the question around and suggested that it would be the Soviets who would be provoked: "The heart of the question is, 'Do you want to make war with the Soviet Union or do you want to cooperate with them?' "
Jobert also echoed a complaint on high interest rates lodged two weeks ago by Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens.
Jobert said that high interest rates were merely a reflection of a "rotten international monetary system" that needs a basic change. Jobert said that the United States, by financing its balance of payments deficits of past years with "false" or "printing-press money," had flooded the world with Eurodollars. He estimated the size of the Eurodollar market at $1.3 trillion.
"This has led to a huge inflation in the world, and to cope with it you had to raise interest rates, and in a certain way you are succeeding," the minister said.
Jobert said that "it would be wise" for the economic summit in Paris in early June to deal with this issue "because it is at the heart of all our difficulties for the past, the present, and the future."