PARIS — Paris. The backhand blow of the war in the Persian Gulf has demolished the idea that there is a ''Europe'' capable of conducting a coherent foreign policy. The gulf has demonstrated that the European powers are deeply divided, not simply on the gulf but on what Europe's response should be to a hostile world beyond its frontiers.
Government positions express popular divisions. Washington wants to know why it doesn't have more support from Germany. The answer: 80 percent of the German public thinks force against Iraq unjustified. It is useless for American officials or press to demand that the German government go against the will of the overwhelming majority of the German people.
The British public is 80 percent favorable to Britain's participation in the gulf effort, and 60 percent are prepared to accept British casualties in the cause. This was before Iraq's odious display of British captives to international television and press on Monday, but nothing leads one to think that would not have further hardened British opinion.
French public opinion has all but totally reversed itself during the past 10 days. A poll taken the day after the attacks on Iraq began showed 65 percent of the public behind France's combat role in the gulf, 67 percent approving the attack on Iraq, and 53 percent who express the hope -- idle, one would think -- that France will have a ''decisive'' or ''important'' influence on how the affair comes out.
Before Jan. 15 polls showed a majority against France's taking part in combat (only 37 percent were in favor). That explains why President Francois Mitterrand conducted so persistent an effort to find a negotiated solution, offering last-minute promises to Iraq that infuriated Washington. He was covering his back, politically. By so doing he actually made possible the dramatic shift in favor of the war that now has taken place.
However, majority opinion everywhere is fragile. The war exacerbates internal problems in all the European countries with major Muslim minority populations. Germany's minority is made up of Turks, who are uneasily inside the U.N. coalition. Britain's is mainly Pakistani, from a country marginal to a conflict inside the Arab world.
However, in France the minority is North African, and feels a direct link to Mideastern affairs. France's anti-racism movement, which in the last few years have been a bridge between French youth and the second-generation North African minority, has split as a consequence of the war. Jewish and Muslim young people have brawled in the street.
The French Socialist Party itself is split. France's Defense Minister, leader of a left-wing nationalist faction in the party, has ostentatiously distanced himself from the policy he is expected to carry out, to the considerable embarrassment of the government. The nationalist right is against France's participation in the war -- and that includes not only the far-right National Front but a part of the old Gaullist movement.
The Italian political class and Italian public opinion have been seriously divided over the Italian Air Force's combat role in the gulf. The Greek public is largely against the war and anti-American. Netherlands opinion is divided, and the Danes (and Swedes) have done their best to pretend that none of this is happening, or at least that it has nothing to do with them.
But this should scarcely be thought strange. Britain and France have the habits and reactions of traditional great powers. They ,, expect to play a role in events. Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark do not. Their historical experience counsels them to stand apart.
The British are also a piratical and warrior people, as a member of parliament said last week, with satisfaction. Their approval of this war is even higher than their approval of the Falkland campaign eight and a half years ago -- and that was high enough. Americans habitually use technology and jargonized, antiseptic language to distance themselves from the bloody realities of war. The British do not. It is a fair bet that if this war goes badly American opinion will crack long before British opinion. The British already have taken more than their proportionate share of the air losses.
The French believe they could have run the diplomatic effort to get Iraq out of Kuwait better than the U.S. did. Maybe they could have. They tried their best to do so; hence Washington's annoyance. The French also know that if they expect to have a place at the table when all this is sorted out they will have to have bought their place by fighting in the war, which is what they are doing. Mr. Mitterrand has said explicitly that French forces will fight wherever the war leads, including into Iraq.
Germany's calamities of the first and second world wars explain why present-day Germans are determined -- in some quarters, nearly hysterically so -- to have as little as possible to do with this new war. The Germans fear themselves. Washington does ill to ignore this.
These differences brought into the open by the gulf crisis explain why there is no common European foreign or strategic policy, and why there will not be for a long time to come, if ever. Europe is a community of economic interests and political values. There is agreement on passive and political defense of those interests and values. How actively to advance them is another matter, on which no agreement exists. Europe is not a political union, a ''European'' great power. It may never be.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.