Les Miserables

As it appeared all along, the French government was behind the sinking of the nuclear protest ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand last July--an attack in which one person was killed. Premier Laurent Fabius, faced with overwhelming evidence and an unraveling story, came clean Sunday night. But this episode is not over yet. The Socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand, reeling under its worst crisis since coming to power in 1981, has much more to explain.

Fabius says that the government will not identify the French agents who attacked the Greenpeace ship, which had been scheduled to lead a flotilla in protest against French atomic testing in the South Pacific, because they “only obeyed orders.” The government seems to have forgotten already Mitterrand’s promise of last month when he said: “If (French) responsibility is proven, the guilty parties, at whatever level they are found, will be severely punished.”

The French government would have the world believe that it just found out about French culpability in the sinking of the ship--an assertion that strains credibility. It is most unlikely that Defense Minister Charles Hernu, who resigned last week, and Adm. Pierre Lacoste, the head of the intelligence agency who was fired at the same time, either didn’t know what was going on or acted on their own.

Using explosives to sink a ship engaged in peaceful protest is a brutally unacceptable way of dealing with political opposition. But the crime itself is just part of the French scandal. The other element is the cover-up that has been going on for 2 1/2 months, during which Paris repeatedly asserted that it had nothing to do with sinking the ship. Among those humiliated is Bernard Tricot, former chief of staff for President Charles de Gaulle, whose “independent” investigation exonerated the government. Still unaddressed by investigators and the government is the question of compensation for the wife and children of the Greenpeace photographer killed in this terrible action.

France is not the only government of a Western democracy to take leave of its senses and its principles in recent times. The United States itself has ignored international concepts of a rule of law on too many occasions--most recently in Nicaragua, sowing mines in waters plied by the shipping of the world. The likelihood of repetition will be minimized only if France treats this matter for what Mitterrand called it: a “crime.”