Soviet officials, when asked about the summit, like to reply, in their perverse way, "Which one are you talking about -- Paris or Geneva?"
It is their way of saying that they expect little or nothing from the Reagan-Gorbachev encounter next month, whereas they have great expectations about their general secretary's visit to Paris next week.
The summit scenarios projected here range from gloomy to disastrous. An arms-control agreement, since President Reagan declared that "Star Wars" is not negotiable until the deployment phase, is out of the question. The Soviets predict that Reagan will lecture Mikhail Gorbachev about Soviet sins and cause him to bristle as he did when a delegation of U.S. senators read him prepared remarks about Afghanistan and other offenses.
A Moscow optimist is someone who hopes that no further harm to abysmal U.S.-Soviet relations will be done in Geneva.
But Paris is different. Paris offers a chance to repeat the personal triumph that Gorbachev enjoyed in London last December before he became the Soviet leader. Paris will be the place where he will appear so reasonable, astute and peace-loving that when it all falls apart, as expected in Geneva, Europe will be likely to say that it couldn't possibly be his fault. Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, is going along to display the Soviet chic that dazzled London.
Fedor Burlatsky, commentator for the Literary Gazette, writes in the current issue that "Paris is the perfect overture for Geneva."
Georgi Arbatov, a familiar figure on U.S. television, who advises Gorbachev on American affairs, says, "It will give attention to our relations with other countries in the West."
The men in the Kremlin managed to work in references to the French connection in most of their exchanges with two Democratic congressmen, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Robert J. Mrazek of New York, who were visiting here this week. Since Markey is a leader of the nuclear freeze movement and Mrazek is the author of an amendment to cut $112 million out of the Star Wars budget, they hoped for an audience with Gorbachev.
After the usual evasions and a couple of outright lies -- such as a denial that a request had been received -- L.N. Tolkonov, a delegate to the Supreme Soviet, said defensively, "You must understand that comrade Gorbachev is extremely busy with preparations for his trip to France."
Gorbachev is setting great store by a joint communique from the meeting. In addition to trade and cultural agreements, he hopes to get in a few licks on arms control. Geneva seems to promise only a continuation of the recriminations that have been flying between Moscow and Washington for the past month.
Reagan complains that Gorbachev does not formalize the hints of radical cuts in strategic weapons in negotiating positions. The Soviets complain that Washington gave an "arrogant" reply to Gorbachev's declaration of a unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests.
The real problem is Star Wars. The Soviets say it won't work as a shield and that they have no intention of letting Reagan lure them into a bankrupting attempt to duplicate it. They say they are concerned about its first-strike ramifications, which they will counter by a new buildup in strategic weapons.
The sad part about it all is that the meeting will occur between two leaders who have the freedom to do something wise about the arms race. Neither Reagan nor Gorbachev has to look over his shoulder. Reagan, whose popularity is based on his personality rather than his policies, is at one of his all-time highs, 62 percent, on the approval charts. Right-wing objections to any kind of an accord with the Soviets would be swept away by majority sentiment.
Gorbachev has no public opinion to contend with. Soviet newspapers never print anything unfavorable about him, and it would make no difference if they did, since leaders of one-party states don't have to face the voters.
Besides, the Politburo, having gone through three leaders in the past five years, is hardly about to turn on one who has amazed them by being telegenic, energetic and a star in the West. His hawks would have to sheathe their talons no matter what he brought back from Geneva.
But the history of arms control is the history of lost opportunities and Geneva is a candidate for the list. That is why Gorbachev is practicing "Enchante" for greeting President Francois Mitterrand, rather than "Howdy, partner" for an opener for Reagan at the summit.