President Francois Mitterrand today turned down an invitation from President Reagan to the leaders of other western industrialized nations and Japan to attend a meeting in New York later this month to discuss this November's U.S.-Soviet summit.
French political analysts said that Reagan's invitation had come at an embarrassing time for Mitterrand, who is preparing to greet Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Paris Wednesday. In playing host to the Soviet leader, France is anxious to stress that it has an independent voice in world affairs and is more than just a loyal ally of the United States.
Gorbachev, in the first interview he has granted to a western television station, said tonight that he wanted much more from the Geneva summit than just an occasion to shake Reagan's hand and "smile pleasantly" for the media. He warned of a dangerous spiral in the arms race because of the U.S. strategic defense initiative (SDI).
The interview, which was aired simultaneously in France and the Soviet Union, also gave viewers in both countries a chance to see the new Kremlin leader defending his country against western criticism on human rights.
Gorbachev, who will meet Reagan in Geneva on Nov. 19-20, also confirmed the substance of recent U.S. news reports on new Soviet proposals for a sharp cut in strategic nuclear arms linked to major restrictions on SDI. He declined, however, to go into details.
Analysts here said that Mitterrand's refusal to join other western leaders in New York was likely to strengthen his negotiating hand with Gorbachev during their three days of talks. According to senior French officials, France is resisting Soviet pressure to sign a joint communique condemning the militarization of space and SDI.
A communique from the Elysee presidential palace tonight said that Mitterrand would not attend the proposed seven-nation meeting in New York on Oct. 24, but added that he would be happy to meet Reagan at a later date. Apart from France, other U.S. allies invited to the New York meeting on arms control and East-West relations are Britain, West Germany, Canada, Italy and Japan.
Earlier, in an elegant rebuff of the U.S. invitation, presidential spokesman Michelle Vauzelle told reporters that meetings of the kind Reagan suggests could "perhaps be judged useful but do not seem to be absolutely indispensable."
Vauzelle added: "It isn't necessary to go to New York to meet other partners or make known the European point of view on East-West relations."
France has traditionally viewed with suspicion what it sees as attempts to turn the annual economic summits of the seven leading western industrialized countries into a kind of political directorate. Mitterrand himself has publicly questioned the usefulness of the summits on several occasions, hinting that France might eventually decide not to take part.
"Reagan's invitation caught Mitterrand in a difficult position. On the one hand, France is always looking for ways of emphasizing its independence, while on the other we also complain that the Americans don't consult us enough," remarked a French diplomat privately.
Analysts said that Mitterrand was looking for ways to emphasize French independence in anticipation of important parliamentary elections next March. The vigorous defense of French interests is likely to aid his standing in public opinion, which has suffered from the scandal over the sinking of a Greenpeace ship by the French secret service.
While Mitterrand has promised to share his impressions of Gorbachev with the Reagan administration, French officials are resentful of any move that resembles a "summons" from Washington. France, which has its own independent nuclear force, is also anxious to stress that it has no direct influence on the Geneva negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev used his interview tonight to warn French viewers of the dangers of a spiral in the arms race if the United States goes ahead with Reagan's "Star Wars" scheme, as SDI is known. He seemed to appeal to French concern about the militarization of space.
"Frankly, it is already very difficult to begin arms talks now. . . . . What will happen if the militarization of space begins tomorrow and space strike weapons are developed?" he asked.
Perhaps the most remarkable scene in the interview -- particularly for Soviet viewers unaccustomed to frank discussion on human rights -- was the sharp exchange between Gorbachev and the French reporters on Soviet dissidents. The French newsmen specifically mentioned the cases of the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, who has been banished from Moscow, and human rights activist Anatoly Scharansky, who is serving a prison sentence for espionage.
After first arguing that "we in the Soviet Union should manage our affairs ourselves and you in France manage yours," Gorbachev said that Scharansky had been sentenced legally for breaking Soviet laws. He insisted that Soviet Jews enjoyed many more political and other rights than Jews in the West, despite the fact that they constitute a tiny percentage of the population.
"If there exists some country where the laws for Jews are as [favorable] as they are here, I should be extremely happy to talk about it," he said.
The Soviet leader was asked at one point by a popular French television personality, Yves Mourousi, whether it was true that there were 4 million political prisoners in the Soviet Union.
"That's absurd," he replied sharply. "That reminds me of Goebbel's propaganda.