It took French President Francois Mitterrand the diplomatic equivalent of about five minutes the other day to disassociate France from the plans for a Rapid Reaction Corps that the 15 other members of NATO announced last Tuesday in Brussels. He obviously regarded its adoption as a setback for France's own plans for such a force answerable not to the 16-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization but to the 12-nation European Community (EC).
The French point is that the United States is a member of NATO. It is not a member of the EC. Thus, the Europeans could eventually build a rapid reaction force under their own control as an expression of the political union they are working toward.
Meeting with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the northern French city of Lille last Wednesday and Thursday in the 57th of the regular French-German summits, Mitterrand also expressed the French reserves about American plans to give NATO a bigger political role.
What role? Mitterrand asked. As for the Rapid Reaction Corps, what missions would it have in Europe? The Cold War is over.
France keeps insisting that it has no intention of undermining the alliance that has deterred the Soviet Union all these years. It assured U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney of that again when he stopped over here last week on his way to Brussels.
But times have changed; the French are obviously thinking they will change even more in the future. For France, the EC, not NATO, should be the spokesman of a uniting Europe. What France has never explained is how it will reconcile European unity with its insistence to keep exclusive control of its nuclear weapons.
Mitterrand would, he said in Lille, not be long in giving France's own ideas on the strategy that NATO and Europe should be following. If not before, they will probably come this week when the NATO foreign ministers, including French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, meet in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Since 1966 when the late Charles de Gaulle pulled French troops out from under the NATO unified command, always headed by an American, France has not participated in military meetings like the one last week in Brussels.
But it is still very much a part of the NATO alliance and insists on a say in decisions on future alliance strategy.
Germany will probably have the decisive voice in whatever is eventually worked out, not wanting to offend either the United States, the trans-Atlantic superpower, or France, its major partner in the building of Europe.
Kohl was sitting beside Mitterrand at their final news conference in Lille, and it was almost embarrassingly obvious that they disagreed. German Defense Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg had after all agreed to the plan for a NATO Rapid Reaction Corps and signed the final Brussels communique.
Americans probably shouldn't forget that once before, in the matter of farm subsidies and trade negotiations, Kohl sided with the French despite a previous commitment to President Bush. In matters of defense, however, the French may just not have the weight to pull along the Germans.
Why don't the French want us around? Well, they do want us around, of course. They just want us to keep quiet and leave most of the decisions to the Europeans. Washington may have to get used to not having its way so often.
What the French may not yet completely understand, however, is that if the United States keeps 100,000 troops in Europe, it's not just going to keep quiet. If it's expected to, then the U.S. people and Congress aren't going to leave their troops here.
American officials who have to deal with the French government know that France is an excellent ally in matters that affect the two countries alone. But it becomes a pain in the behind in international matters.
From the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 to the 1991 gulf war, the French, de Gaulle included, have sided with the United States in times of great crisis. They probably always will. But as they like to insist, there is a "French difference." There probably always will be.