President Francois Mitterrand was quoted today as saying that France was ready to undertake joint action against terrorists with other western nations as long as its independent foreign policy was respected.
French commentators interpreted the president's remarks, a week before the Tokyo summit of western industrialized nations, as a significant toughening of his public position on fighting terrorism. They follow criticism of France by the Reagan administration for refusing to facilitate the U.S. air raid against Libya on April 15.
In an interview with the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, Mitterrand said that it was "totally incorrect" to think that France was opposed to international cooperation on terrorism. He said that its major concern was not to get involved in actions against terrorism without the chance of examining them freely and making up its own mind.
Mitterrand's latest statement coincided with a detailed account in the Paris daily Le Monde of the events leading up to the French rejection of overflight rights for the British-based U.S. F111 bombers. The newspaper reported that President Reagan had tried, without success, to involve France in an "anti-Libyan operation" as early as Feb. 25.
Sources close to the president depicted the Le Monde account as substantially accurate.
According to Le Monde, Mitterrand rejected an appeal by Reagan for France to join the U.S. naval maneuvers in the Gulf of Sidra that eventually took place in late March. Mitterrand's response reportedly was made known to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Vernon A. Walters on a previously unpublicized visit to Paris at the beginning of March.
Le Monde said that Reagan sent a second private message to Mitterrand on April 11, announcing his intention of using the F111s to attack "terrorist camps" in Libya and requesting overflight rights. After consulting conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac by telephone, Mitterrand decided to reject the U.S. request, and the French refusal was communicated to Washington the following morning.
The newspaper said the White House then sent another urgent message to Mitterrand asking him to reconsider. The French refusal was confirmed at a meeting on the morning of April 13 betweeen Mitterrand, Chirac, and Foreign Minister Jean-Bernard Raimond.
Responsibility for important foreign policy decisions has been shared between the Socialist president and the conservative prime minister since the narrow right-wing victory in parliamentary elections on March 16.
Political analysts here said that the unusually detailed leak in Le Monde appeared designed in part to counter an assertion by Chirac that the decision to reject the U.S. request for overflight rights was his.
The Le Monde account played down U.S. reports that Mitterrand had urged the United States to consider an "all-out operation" against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. The newspaper reported that the French ambassador to the United Nations, Claude de Kemoularia, had been reprimanded for distorting the president's views in reportedly telling dinner party guests that France would be ready to associate itself with such an operation.
In his interview with the Japanese newspaper, Mitterrand said that France was ready to involve itself in an international antiterrorist effort including "police, secret service, intelligence action, with a possible military extension."
In the past, U.S. officials have complained of French reluctance to discuss the terrorist issue at the annual summit meetings of the seven leading western industrialized nations.
Asked about criticism by Reagan of the French refusal to grant overflight rights for the U.S. F111s, Mitterrand replied: "Reagan is free to say what he wants to say and Europe is free to do what it wants to do."