It started in January 17th, At 8:30 p.m., on Aeroflot jet landed in Charico air Gentle airport near Park. Four high-level Soviet officials--negotiators for Soyuzgas-Export--debarked and were promptly met by the directors of Gas de France(GDF), the nationalized company responsible for French natural gas production. The group bearded a training aircraft and was whisked away to the Alpine ski resort of Val-Thorens..
The talks were lengthily and involved, centering primarily around the issue of price. By January 20th the French team, led by GDF general director Pierre Delepurte, felt it had made sufficient headway to move the final round of discussions to GDF headquarters in Paris. Two-days later, at 11 p.m., the deal was struck: for the next twenty-five years. France will receive--via a trans-European pipeline--eight million cubic meters of natural gas from the Soviet Union, in addition to the four billion it already buys. By 1990, one third of France's gas and five percent of all the energy it consumes will come from Siberia.
When it comes to natural resources, the god of energy certainly did not spoil France. Each year, the French must import 75 percent of all the energy they else. In 1980, when a large oil reserve was discovered in the north of the country. President Giscard d'Eataing's government was ecstatic. In particular, the minister of energy was gleeful when he pointed out that "now we will produce one percent of all the gasoline we need." He was completely serious. The supplies of France's coal are dwindling, and the product is of low quality--un-competitive. As for natural gas, while France now covers about 30 percent of its consumption with domestic production, the critically important Lacq reserves are slowly but very surely being exhausted. At the same time, the government projects that the proportion of gas in the total" energy budget" will jump from the current 13 percent to about 17 percent in 1990.
For these reasons, the decision of President Mitterrand's administration to back the contract signed between GDF and Soyuzgas-export is hardly surprising. Already this fall, several members of the European Economic Community--including France and West Germany--entered into joint venture with the Soviet Union for the construction of a natural gas pipeline that is to run from Siberia to Western Europe. Besides, eight billion cubic meters of gas is the equivalent of five nuclear reactors. Hence the deal with the Soviets will allow Mitterrand to slow the growth of the French nuclear industry, an avowed goal of the president's.
Still, the agreement has created an uproar in France and has gives new life to a moribund opposition. Two fundamental questions are on the lips of every French politician: what effect-symbolic or otherwise--will the deal have on the Polish crisis and how dependent will France really be on the Soviet Union for energy?
Ironically, since the crackdown against Solidarity. France has been cited in many countries as a model for the whole West to emulate. The French have poured more than five billion dollars in various forms--cash, food, consumer goods, etc.--into Poland since the imposition of martial law and the government has exerted intense diplomatic pressure, most notably through the Vatican and the Churches of other Eastern Bloc nations, on Jaruzelski's regime. And, of course, the French government's rapid condemnation of the Polish military dictatorship and of the Soviet involvement in Poland provided an unusual instance of gallic solidarity with the rest of Western alliance.
Given these policies, officials have been hard-pressed to find excuses for the signing of the French gas agreement. One minister said he thought it would have been hypocritical to wait until Poland was forgotten to sign what he called "an inevitable deal." While this is no doubt true, it hardly seems consistent with the philosophy enunciated by then-opposition leader Mitterrand on the occasion of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. "Anything that contributes, no matter how little, to better the position of the aggressor is a mistake." It seems moreover, especially two-faced of Mitterrand, since he saw fit to postpone immediately a scheduled visit to Israel after the annexation of the Golan Heights and yet saw no reason to delay the signing of the gas deal.
Nonetheless, it is equally clear that French refusal to sign the contract with the Soviets would have had little if any impact on Poland. Certainly, it would not have prompted the Russians to pressure Jaruzelski to lift martial law. By doing "business as usual" with the U.S.S.R, the French communicate to the Poles--at least to those who heard of the deal--that they can expect little but token gestures from the West and will have to fend for themselves. The lesson is a cruel but necessary one; only the Poles themselves, through whatever means of resistance they choose, can rid their country of an unwanted dictator.
This is by no means a call for isolationism. The West must expand trade and undertake a meaningful dialogue with the Eastern Bloc if it is to have any positive influence at all. Ultimately, though tangible reform will only come from within. Solidarity is proof that the peoples of Eastern Europe are beginning to openly reject their system; it is tragic that it was a movement born perhaps a generation too soon.
MORE DISTURBING to many is the fear France has "Finlandized" itself by creating a dependence on the Soviet Union for energy. Doomsday scenarios pervaded French publications of the last two weeks. One, in L'Express, entitled "Suddenly in the Summer of 1986," saw the Soviets entering East Germany to crush a popular anti-communist uprising. In retaliation the alliance--miraculously united--boycotts all trade with the U.S.S.R. The latter then curtails the flow of natural gas to Western Europe, whose economies suffer crippling bolws. One can easily fill in the rest of the apocalypse.
Should the Russians stop selling gas to Western Europe, the French economy would indeed be damaged. A number of industries depend on it and conversion to another energy source takes time. What's more, during the winter the ten million Frenchmen who depend on gas for warmth would have to bay electric heaters, thus putting a severe strain on the French power network.
Still, France would survive. Russian gas will represent only five percent of French energy consumption, making long-term conversion to an alternative source feasible. Gaullist planners have long envisioned a France powered by nuclear energy--it already is more dependent on its reactors than any other country except Switzerland--and natural gas is at most a stepping stone toward the realization of that goal. Despite the go-slow policies of the Socialists, by the late 1990s the new crop of reactors will make the Soviet gas virtually superfluous.
More important, though, the Russians are not likely to blackmail Europe with natural gas. The Soviet Union simply stands to gain as much-from the deal as Europe does. The Russian need of hard currency for grain and technology purchases is well known; if anything, mutual dependence is our best bet to avoid a nuclear disaster. The trans-European pipeline serves that end.
In addition, Russia needs the pipeline technology itself. Without it, much or the natural gas in Siberia will be inaccessible to the Soviets themselves, not to mention the West. The S.S.S.R. would then be forced to go energy hunting elsewhere. The Persian Gulf is one hunting ground that comes quickly to mind.
Adlai Stevenson once said we do not have to like our adversaries to live with them. The Franco-Soviet gas deal is a case in point. Though wanting in tact. France's initiative has enhanced the chances for co-existence with the Russians. By emulating the French in creating new ties with the Soviets, the rest of the West can further the cause of mutual dependence ad hence move further away from the prospect of mutual annihilation.