France is urging its European neighbors to counter the technological challenge posed by President Reagan's "Star Wars" initiative by launching rival European programs for peaceful scientific research.
The French proposals, which were discussed at a Cabinet meeting yesterday, will be conveyed formally to other Western European governments next week by Foreign Minister Roland Dumas. Code-named Eureka, they envisage European cooperation in such areas as high-powered computers, lasers, artificial intelligence and microprocessors.
In public comments today, several French Cabinet ministers made a point of contrasting the French initiative for peaceful high technology research with President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), more popularly known as "Star Wars." The Reagan administration has invited Western European countries to take part in joint research into developing a space-based antiballistic missile system.
Political analysts here said the timing of the French proposals suggested that they were intended to provide other Western European countries with a political and economic alternative to the U.S. research program. Both projects are likely to be discussed by western leaders when they meet in Bonn next month for the annual economic summit.
In a television interview this evening, Defense Minister Charles Hernu replied to questions about "Star Wars" by saying that France intended to promote "peace in the stars." The minister said other countries besides the superpowers should be allowed to acquire space-age technologies such as military observation satellites.
Noting that France did not belong to the military wing of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Hernu said the United States should not be allowed "to place us in a kind of economic super-NATO . . . on the pretext of chasing after our industries, our techniques, our knowledge, our technologies and our brains."
A similar line was taken by Research and Technology Minister Hubert Curien, who said in a statement that the prospect of an American technological "leap forward" because of "Star Wars" was encouraging Western Europeans to reinforce their own cooperation in such areas as lasers, particle beams and high-powered computers.
France, which along with Britain has its own independent nuclear deterrent, has reacted skeptically to President Reagan's calls for the construction of the space-based antimissile defense system. Officials here have said privately that they fear that the talk of doing away with nuclear deterrents could undermine public confidence in the idea of "mutually assured destruction," which they say has kept the peace in Europe for four decades.
In common with other Western Europeans, however, the French are also troubled by the prospect of a widening technological gap between the United States and Europe if the Reagan administration goes ahead with its plans to invest vast sums in a space-based defense system. President Mitterrand's advisers are aware that other European countries, particularly West Germany, are tempted by U.S. offers of lucrative defense contracts.
In the past, French efforts to encourage Western Europe to develop its own scientific projects in competition to those of the United States have met with only partial success. Earlier this year, the West German government refused to invest financially in the French-designed space shuttle Hermes and opted instead for participation in the U.S. program.
In an editorial comment today, the influential Paris newspaper Le Monde said that Western European countries that joined in "Star Wars" research would be considered "subcontractors" to the United States, a situation that could lead to such undesirable consequences as a further "brain drain" from Europe to America.
Meeting in Brussels, leaders of the Socialist International criticized the Strategic Defense Initiative and expressed support for the French government's call for European countries to invest in peaceful space research. In a statement after a two-day meeting, former West German chancellor Willy Brandt opposed "the extension of armaments into space."