Mitterrand Is Europe's Middleman : Statecraft: A wily French president, enjoying rare citizen support, works at harnessing German aspirations to an integrated Continent.

Steven Philip Kramer, visiting professor of government at Georgetown University, and Josef W. Konvitz, professor of history at Michigan State University, recently returned from France

Concerned about the future of Germany, France is torn between trying to accelerate the development of West European institutions, the better to link the destiny of Germany to its partners, or accepting the inevitability of reunification in order to control the process. France is not the only nation concerned about the future of Germany but it is perhaps the only European state that can influence what happens. The United States is too remote and too preoccupied with other issues. Great Britain is increasingly irrelevant to Germany. The question is, will France choose to exert its influence?

Ideological and partisan divisions in France have so diminished that President Francois Mitterrand can demonstrate leadership aboard with a nation virtually united behind him at home--the consummation of Charles de Gaulle's grandest hopes for France. Perhaps the most important issue facing France is the structure of a new Europe, now that the question of German unification cannot be postponed.

France has often sought a role in German affairs. In 1648, at the Peace of Westphalia, France was striving for dominance in Western Europe and was only too happy to keep Germany fragmented into hundreds of states without a strong central authority. In 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, French leaders shared the European consensus of maintaining the status quo of a divided Germany. In 1870 France fought Prussia in a last-ditch effort to prevent German unification. After 1870, France no longer sought dominance but security against the threat of a powerful aggressive neighbor. In 1919 at Versailles, France tried to cripple Germany through border changes and severe reparations. Policy after World War II was far more enlightened; it sought a democratic Germany within a European Economic Community. Significantly, EC institutions are housed at cities in Belgium, Luxembourg and France that Germany invaded in 1914 and 1940.

Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman initiated, De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer cemented, the special Franco-German relationship that has been the dominant feature of European politics in the postwar era. This relationship has been based on German economic strength and French freedom of action in political and military affairs, leading to the great prestige France enjoys in the federal republic.

In many ways, France is in a better position than ever to act. The curse of French political life since the 1789 revolution has been political instability. Instability contributed to France's decline as the preeminent continental power in the early 19th Century. In the 1930s, polarization between left and right reached such extremes that agreement on the basics--foreign policy and national defense--could not be reached, leading to the debacle of 1940. The Fourth Republic, created in 1946, failed to create consensus and collapsed 12 years later. Even the Fifth Republic initially divided Frenchmen, although in the long run its executive-dominated institutions suited contemporary needs.

In the last years, however, the ideological fervor separating right and left have almost disappeared, in part because the opposition finally came to power. The Socialists' effort at a "break" with capitalism failed in 1981-83; the right's 1986-87 efforts at rolling back most of the Socialist legislation soon ground to a halt amid popular opposition. "Cohabitation" between a Socialist president and a conservative Parliament in 1986 was decisive, producing an "end of ideology." Voters reelected Mitterrand because he appeared less divisive than his rival, Jacques Chirac.

Today, there is broad agreement between all major parties on matters of defense and foreign policy. The constitution of the Fifth Republic and the current political situation give the president considerable room for initiative. And Mitterrand has great interest in European and international affairs, with more experience than any other European statesman. Like the fox in Machiavelli's "The Prince," he has been able to finesse seemingly impossible political situations.

In the course of two decades, Mitterrand proved that a Socialist could be elected president of the republic, that a moribund Socialist Party could be transformed into the major French party, that the Communist Party could be used to win an election and then dispatched to the dustbin of history. Mitterrand is one of the great political strategists in French history; his understanding of many domestic issues, especially economic, is less notable.

Mitterrand clearly wants to play an active role in the creation of a New Europe. But will he have the support of the French people? Not because they are divided, as in the past, but because they have other things on their mind.

France today seems remarkably inward-looking. The French have entered the age of consumerism, with all that implies about attitudes toward work and patterns of expenditure. Traditionally strong French domestic industries are often not capable of meeting the demands of the consumer market. Unemployment remains a concern.

As more young people pursue higher education in overcrowded universities, entry in the job market is postponed until the mid-20s, an age group with considerable unemployment. The French are not so dazed by the joys of consumerism that they can think of nothing else, but the sluggish economic situation means that they are preoccupied with holding on to what they have.

Concerns about immigration and crime, often with racist overtones, reflect French fears for economic security. Preoccupation with domestic issues is compounded by the feeling that France is merely a spectator to what is happening in the East, with little capacity to influence events.

There is no mystery about where French interests lie in Europe. No French leader can be enthusiastic about the prospect of German reunification, certainly not someone like Mitterrand who lived through the occupation. But neither can France appear to be the stumbling block to reunification. So much the better if East Germany maintains a separate identity. Mitterrand's trip to East Berlin was clearly intended to prevent a precipitous collapse of East Germany, so that this possibility would not be foreclosed. At minimum, Mitterrand wanted to buy time to avoid a rapid and uncontrolled process of reunification in which French interests would not be taken into account.

After World War II, France was willing to accept rebirth of an independent West Germany as part of an economically unified democratic Western Europe. If Germany is to be reunified, the French will want to be sure that it is a democratic Germany encapsulated in a reunited Europe. What Mitterrand cannot accept is an uncontrolled reunited Germany dominating central Europe.

Mitterrand has talked in vague terms of a European confederation. On the content level, this has sounded like statesmanlike fudge. On the tactical level, however, it makes sense. Mitterrand wanted to tie Helmut Kohl into such a plan and thus prevent anyone else (especially the Germans) from seizing the initiative. He will then do what he does best, work behind the scenes to create a situation in which German reunification poses the minimal threat to French interests.

Politics is full of unforeseen events but Mitterrand's experience also tells him that success comes by working carefully, patiently, behind the scenes with a long time frame. He has six years left in his term. Although the French may be unusually inward-looking, the public and political class will follow a presidential leadership that "rises above" controversial domestic issues. With help from other West European nations, plus the United States and the Soviet Union, perhaps from Germany as well, Mitterrand's job will be to bind Germany to Europe with hoops of steel.

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