President Clinton's visit to Africa next week would have sent French officials into a spin if it had taken place two or three years ago.

At that time French officials were convinced that Washington had embarked on a concerted effort to replace France in its long-time sphere of influence in the French-speaking countries of Central and West Africa.Even French military commanders, usually staunchly pro-American, were certain Washington was behind rebel offensives that ultimately brought down the then-Paris backed governments of Rwanda and Zaire.

Tensions reached a high point when a French Cabinet minister described a rare visit to Africa by Secretary of State Warren Christopher just before the 1996 U.S. presidential election as a ploy to endear Clinton to black American voters.

But Clinton's forthcoming visit to four African states, including France's oldest partner on the continent, Senegal, is now viewed with more equanimity in Paris - though not all suspicions have been quashed.

Perhaps the most tangible sign of reconciliation was the participation early this month of U.S. Marines in a major French-organized military exercise aimed at setting up a prototype African peace force.

Senior U.S. observers were delighted and poured cold water on suggestions that there had ever been competition between the two countries about Africa.

"We are complementary to one another," said Rear Admiral Bill Cross, operations chief of U.S. forces in Europe.

Speaking in the searing heat of Bakel on the desolate border between Senegal and Mauritania, Cross said: "I've never seen competition or non-cooperation between our countries in the military field, and our operations throughout the world are going to be more combined. You'll see more operations like this."