French President Francois Mitterrand has passed the word that his fleeting White House visit tomorrow "should not be dramatized." Good thinking: high drama would highlight, and might harden, more Franco-American conflicts--on international economics, alliance relations, the Soviet threat, Central America, the Mideast-- than could be dealt with in a week.
But even one day's quiet reasoning together on Franco-American relations has useful purposes. One is obvious: defining and redefining differences will help both countries in their preparation for the June economic summit of the seven leading industrialized Western nations and a subsequent NATO summit where some common denominator of consensus will be required.
A less obvious purpose will be served by even a brief sharp focus on the current state of U.S. relations with France. It will, that is, if it forces the Reagan administration to confront what's missing in its conduct of foreign affairs. "Policy" is too mushy a word; "world view" doesn't quite do it; "conceptual" is overworked.
No matter. It comes down to a capacity to relate domestic and foreign acts and attitudes in a way that doesn't put us dangerously at odds with our allies--and ourselves.
It also comes down to a fundamental division within the Reagan administration between the "global unilateralists" and the "multilateralists." The question is not necessarily on the merits of whether to hammer the Europeans on the Siberian pipeline, for example, or whether the Soviets are the root of all evil in Central America, or whether a settlement of the Palestinian issue isn't a prerequisite to security in the Persian Gulf, or whether sky-high interest rates are critical to the success of Reaganomics.
The point is that American actions and approaches on these issues have adverse effects on friends and allies, and whether this matters. Of what value is Western cohesion to the Reagan administration's consuming concern with the threat of international communism?
From the viewpoint of the French (and almost any ally would serve to illustrate the point), it doesn't seem to matter all that much. Mitterrand has been suitably vague about the problems he wants to talk about: "Economic questions, the functioning of the Atlantic alliance, differences over Latin America are some." There was one "priority problem" he didn't wish to reveal in advance.
But his foreign minister, Claude Cheysson, offered a broad hint of what the French "priority" is in a recent interview with Newsweek International. In a pungent rundown of "increasing misunderstanding between France and the United States on many subjects," Cheysson listed "high U.S. interest rates" as "the area where I fear we will see the greatest difficulties between the United States and the Europeans."
He had nothing but praise for American willingness to take "considerable risks in the military area and to shoulder extraordinary burdens." But economic cooperation "suddenly seems no longer to be as important to the United States."
He was asked about the Reagan argument that high interest rates are needed to bring down inflation and relaunch the world economy. His answer says quite a lot about the workings at cross-purposes of the Reagan grand strategists-- as seen through French (and European) eyes:
"When President Mitterrand met President Reagan at (last year's) Ottawa summit, he told him we understand your economic thinking, but for pity's sake, please succeed quickly. We can hold out for a while, but not indefinitely. A time will come when the economic slowdown, the dearth of investment and the rise in unemployment will sweep everythng away. We are your allies in defense. But we might have nothing left to defend."
Too dire? Perhaps. But if Mitterrand felt even only half that strongly then, his concern must be considerable today. That may not be argument enough for the administration to temper Reaganomics; there may be better arguments closer to home.
But neither does the matter of interest rates exhaust the number of French complaints rooted in a sense that somehow Washington lacks what might be called an "overview."
It's not who's right about anti-Soviet sanctions over Poland, or how to handle El Salvador, or whether the Israelis should deal with the PLO. There is plenty of room in all this for honest differences. The question troubling not just the French but many allies is whether the administration thinks the conflicts and inconsistencies are important enough to justify accommodation in the common interest of Western security.