France's Socialist government wants the United States to show as much energy and initiative in pulling Western Europe out of economic recession as in defending it from potential Soviet aggression.
French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson, in an interview with The Washington Post, called on the Reagan administration to take the lead in establishing "monetary order" in international affairs.
He described 1983 as "the most difficult year" that Western Europe had known since the end of World War II because of the simultaneous challenge of economic crisis and negotiations with the Soviet Union over deployment of nuclear weapons.
The importance attached by the foreign minister to American leadership was surprising when viewed in the light of France's longstanding obsession with asserting its independence from the United States. The change in emphasis reflects both the concern felt here at what is seen as a marked shift in the European strategic balance in Moscow's favor since the days of Charles de Gaulle and at France's own deepening economic problems after three decades of relatively high growth.
But, while presenting a picture of French support for the United States on essential diplomatic and strategic issues, Cheysson also made clear that he is prepared for continued disagreements with Washington in what he suggested were nonvital areas. He particularly criticized American attempts to cut trade between Western Europe and the Soviet Union to weaken the Kremlin's military potential. This could become a major subject of contention at the western economic summit at Williamsburg, Va., in May.
Among other points made by Cheysson during the hour-long interview, which was held in his ornate first-floor office on the Quai d'Orsay Thursday, were:
* France is concerned that the recent drop in oil prices, while welcome in principle, could lead to a further twist in the world recession as a result of a fall in the purchasing power of the oil-producing countries.
* Franco-American relations have improved during the past 18 months, with the United States overcoming much of its initial mistrust of a Socialist government with Communist ministers as junior coalition allies.
* President Reagan should play tough with the Kremlin by continuing to insist in public on his "zero option" proposal for dismantling all intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe while being prepared in private to negotiate a compromise deal with the Soviets.
Cheysson used France's own economic experience since the left's election victory of May 1981 to illustrate his argument that the worldwide recession can be overcome only by joint international efforts. After attempting to reflate by itself while the rest of Europe was still in recession, France's Socialist government had to impose strict austerity measures in June 1982 because of its widening trade deficit, high inflation and weakened franc.
Acknowledging that the experiment had "failed," Cheysson said that the lesson to be drawn was that economic problems could be tackled only "at the world level, which means with the complete support of the Americans."
"The United States is still the most powerful country . . . the country that has in itself the best reserves, the best potential, human and economic, the best unused capacities . . . . So if you don't take the lead, I don't know how it's going to work," he said.
Cheysson said that he was "puzzled" by the contrast between the enormous risks that the United States was prepared to take in exercising its international security responsibilities and its apparent preference for leaving management of the world economy to market forces.
"You should realize that your world responsibility is to be expressed not only in security terms," he said. "Monetary order is as important as the security order and the defense order. Monetary order is in your hands."
Asked about the effect of the reduction in oil prices, Cheysson said he was not "jumping for joy" even though he recognized the short-term benefits for oil importers such as France. He predicted that the price drop would have the effect of cutting the purchasing power of the world's oil-producing countries--including the United States and the Soviet Union--by $100 billion a year. While some of oil importers' savings could be invested in other fields, a large part would represent a direct cut in the world's purchasing power.
A coordinated expansion of the world's economy along the lines advocated by Cheysson is particularly important for France because it represents perhaps the only chance of overcoming its present economic difficulties without politically unacceptable sacrifices at home. The French government's objective of halving its trade deficit, which ran to more than $12 billion last year, could be met much more easily if it had a realistic chance of increasing its exports.
Domestic economic hardships also explain in part why the French government is adamantly opposed to U.S. demands to cut back on trade with Eastern Europe in what are considered nonstrategic areas. Cheysson said that, while France was prepared to tighten up on the export of militarily valuable technology to the Soviet Bloc, it would reject any move by the United States to create an economic body to supervise East-West trade.
"We're not going to accept an economic NATO," he said.
In private conversations, French officials have made clear that they will resist any attempt by the United States to use the Williamsburg summit to secure West European support for a trade war with the Soviet Union. One of the most sensitive issues is the export by France of technology for the Soviet gas pipeline. In the Reagan administration's view, such exports could have the indirect effect of strengthening Soviet military prowess.
Cheysson said that an American official had once sought to convince him that oil, in the form of gasoline, could be used to fuel Soviet tanks. He recalled that he had replied by asking whether American wheat exports could not be used to feed the Soviet tank crews.
"That was the end of that discussion," he said.
Despite occasionally sharp disagreements over trade, Cheysson insisted that the U.S. administration had overcome its mistrust of a leftist government in Paris.
"Some of the initial suspicions resulted from the fact that a new government was coming in with some strange expressions like 'communist,' even 'socialist,' words that you wouldn't use in good company. Well, now you've gotten used to it. I don't say you like it. I don't say you'd use it at home, with your children and neighbors. . . . But you realize you can work with a French Socialist government, even with Communist ministers, as you worked before with previous governments," he said.
Cheysson pointed out that the Socialist government had taken a more forthright stand than the previous center-right administration in calling for deployment of U.S. missiles in Europe if present negotiations with the Soviet Union in Geneva fail. This was important, he said, as it showed how what he termed "the other half of France"--the workers rather than the bourgeoisie--felt on issues of vital concern to the United States.
Indicating that France favored a compromise solution in the Geneva talks, Cheysson said there would have to be "movement on both sides." But he urged the United States not to concede important ground beforehand under the pressure of public opinion.
"Keep your cards close to your chest. . . . Once the doors are closed at the negotiations , we trust you to show your imagination. But don't show it before," he said.
France has been less involved than other European countries in the controversy over Euromissiles. The French government has been in the enviable position of being able to view the debate from the sidelines in view of the fact that it does not belong to NATO's military wing and none of the American missiles are scheduled to be deployed here. In sharp contrast to West Germany and the Netherlands, the pacifist movement is virtually negligible in France.
It is a situation Cheysson obviously relishes, one that has allowed him to take an uncompromising line with the Kremlin over security issues. In the interview, he mentioned a cartoon that had just appeared in the French press about his recent trip to Moscow during which he met the new Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov.
The cartoon--a modern version of the late leader Joseph Stalin's saying, "How many divisions has the pope?"--showed Andropov murmuring to an aide as he was about to receive Cheysson: "Remind me, how many pacifists are there in his country?"
Chuckling with obvious enjoyment at what he clearly regarded as his good fortune, Cheysson said: "There are, thank God, very few pacifists in my country."