PARIS, DEC. 9 -- After a round of applause for yesterday's U.S.-Soviet arms treaty, Western European leaders returned today to widely expressed concerns over exposure to Soviet strength in conventional and chemical weapons and battlefield nuclear arms.
The cautious tone of many official declarations and commentaries reflected fears that U.S. eagerness to move on from the intermediate-range missile agreement to an accord on strategic weapons could eclipse the majority European viewpoint that regular military forces should be the top priority in any next phase of arms reduction.
More broadly, a number of European leaders have described yesterday's treaty to remove U.S. Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles from European soil as the first step in a process that, in the long run, will draw the United States away from extensive participation in European defense. Alain Peyrefitte, the French writer and former justice minister, referred vividly to these fears in a front-page article in Le Figaro entitled, "A Whiff of Yalta."
"Deployment of the Pershings had consolidated a new consensus around firm defense of the West," he said. "Their withdrawal will shake this consensus and boost neutralism."
A number of European officials, particularly in France, have voiced similar concerns regularly, if more mildly, since President Reagan joined Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in sweeping strategic arms reduction proposals at their October 1986 summit meeting in Reykjavik, without extensive prior consultation. The European apprehensions have intensified in recent months as the United States and the Soviet Union moved toward the agreement signed yesterday abolishing U.S. and Soviet medium- and shorter-range nuclear missiles from Europe.
Britain and France, which have their own nuclear forces, also have expressed fear that the increased momentum in U.S.-Soviet nuclear disarmament discussions could eventually lead to Soviet suggestions for reduction or elimination of French and British nuclear forces. Both nations have strongly opposed such negotiations, although President Francois Mitterrand and his aides have hinted recently they would perhaps consider reductions in some kinds of French tactical missiles if conditions were right.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain, giving voice to the mixed European sentiments, hailed the Washington treaty as "good news for everybody," but added: "There should not be other reductions in the nuclear weapons field before we move toward greater parity in conventional forces and chemical arms are eliminated."
French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac said the U.S.-Soviet accord by itself "is not of a nature to reinforce European security" unless it is followed by agreements on chemical and conventional forces, in which French officials say the Soviet Union enjoys an advantage.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany, whose government debated hotly earlier this year before backing the treaty, hailed it yesterday as historic. But he quickly added that it is only a first step that should be followed by elimination of chemical weapons and steps toward balancing NATO and Warsaw Pact conventional forces.
A particular concern for NATO and West Germany after the intermediate-range treaty is the alliance's future position on battlefield-range nuclear weapons, those with ranges of fewer than 300 miles.
West Germany is isolated in NATO in favoring swift negotiations on reducing the battlefield-range arms. The Americans and British, for example, widely favor instead deploying a newer version of the Lance battlefield missile.
Resistance to this has become increasingly open in West Germany, where any battlefield weapons would likely be used. A leading disarmament expert in Kohl's Christian Democratic Union expressed doubt in a speech Monday that such a deployment would be possible.
"The question of modernization of NATO's remaining nuclear potential in Europe is not on the agenda," said Volker Ruehe, a leader of Kohl's party in parliament.Washington Post correspondent Robert J. McCartney in Bonn contributed to this article.