France's new conservative prime minister Jacques Chirac, defending his government's refusal to grant overflight rights to U.S. aircraft headed for a bombing raid in Libya last week, made it clear today that one of Paris' principal objections was what they consider the lack of sufficient prior consultation by Washington. But Chirac also pledged to cooperate with the Reagan administration in fighting international terrorism.
Speaking in a television interview, Chirac indicated that he would use next month's economic summit in Tokyo to try to smooth over relations with Washington that have been badly strained since the April 15 air raid. He insisted that nobody could question "France's deep solidarity with the United States" on the terrorism issue.
France has come under severe criticism in the United States for turning down a request for overflight rights for F111 strategic bombers based in Britain, almost doubling the length of their journey to Libya. The French decision was made jointly by Chirac and Socialist President Francois Mitterrand under a power-sharing arrangement known as "cohabitation" that resulted from the narrow right-wing victory in last month's parliamentary elections.
Chirac refused to comment when asked about reports in the United States that Mitterrand might have been prepared to support a much larger operation against Libya aimed at the overthrow of Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi. But he made it clear that a difficulty in France's associating itself with the raid was the lack of sufficient prior consultation.
According to French and American sources, the United States first broached the question of overflight rights with France on Friday, April 11, via the military attache's office in the U.S. Embassy here. The decision to turn down the request was made at a meeting that lasted more than two hours on Sunday morning between the president and the prime minister after Chirac's return from a hurried visit to the Ivory Coast.
"France also has experience of the Arab world, the ability to give advice. It cannot be pushed into a corner without having the chance of expressing its opinion," Chirac said.
Chirac's explanation for his government's refusal to grant overflight rights to the United States reflected the traditional Gaullist position that France cannot be associated with military operations over which it has no control. This principle has, however, been waived on several occasions, notably in 1962 when Gen. Charles de Gaulle pledged full support for the United States in the event of war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis.
Insisting that France remained a reliable ally of the United States, Chirac said that he was looking forward to a meeting with President Reagan at the Tokyo summit which begins on May 4. He said the government supported U.S. calls for a strengthening of western cooperation against terrorism.
"I am sure that we will be able to reach an agreement on this point without difficulty," he said.
In the past, French leaders have resisted U.S. attempts to use the annual summit meetings of industrialized nations as a forum for coordinating antiterrorist measures. They have argued that the summits were set up to discuss economic issues and should not be transformed into a "political directorate" of the noncommunist industrialized world.
In private, French officials have suggested that the Reagan administration could be attempting to bring pressure on France to make concessions in Tokyo by selective leaks to the press. Administration officials have quoted Mitterrand as telling U.S. special envoy Vernon A. Walters that France would have been prepared to support a full-scale operation to get rid of Qaddafi.
While refusing to confirm or deny these reports, officials here have cited skepticism about whether the U.S. air raid would succeed in its objectives as an important reason for the French refusal to go along with it.
Other officials said that domestic political considerations, and concern for the safety of eight French hostages who are being held in Lebanon, played a key role in Chirac's decision.
France's failure to help the United States has provoked a mixed reaction here with a vocal minority, mainly on the right, strongly criticizing the government for its stand. Opinion polls have shown considerably more popular support for the U.S. air raid in France than in either Britain or West Germany.
In the interview, Chirac noted that France was the only major West European country where there were no large demonstrations against the U.S. raids.
"You saw what happened in Italy, Britain and West Germany -- there were spontaneous demonstrations against the American raid -- but not in France," he said.