French Suffer the Attacks of September

<i> Paul L. Montgomery is an American journalist based in Brussels</i>

Sirens wail in the streets impartially, for false alarms and the daily bombings of public places. The Elysee Palace of President Francois Mitterand and the Hotel Matignon residence of Premier Jacques Chirac, two elegant buildings separated by the Seine and generations of ideological posturing, burn late with light, surrounded by soldiers.

It has been a bloody week, most days bringing murders of the innocent and casualty wards busy treating people with missing limbs. Chirac, whose conservative government has been in power for six months after four years of opposition complaining at the ineffectuality of Mitterand’s Socialists, calls the bombers “modern barbarians.” He appeals for calm and courage. Mitterand, no fool, has said little.

In France, most problems eventually come to be discussed in partisan political terms. No politician has yet put the murders and the maimings of the week into exactly those categories, but it is not hard to hear the overtones.


When Mitterand’s Socialists were swept to power in 1981, their theme was reconciliation and appeal to the revolutionary roots of republican France. In a general amnesty after the Mitterand government took power, scores of terrorists were released. Yet within a year, some of them were back at it, killing and maiming.

In elections last March, Chirac and his rightist coalition pushed the Socialists out of parliament with promises to enhance “security” against terrorism in the nation. The first pledge from the new Minister of the Interior, Charles Pasqua, was to “terrorize the terrorists.” Despite the pledge, terrorists are back yet again, killing and maiming.

The right in France has a consistent policy of opposition to immigration from the former North African colonies of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. The new requirement that visitors to France have visas, announced by Chirac after the first wave of bombings, falls most heavily on such travelers. Indeed, along the streets of Paris last week, in the frequent stop-and-frisk operations conducted by reenforced police squads, those most often stopped were people who looked like they might be Arabs.

Chirac spoke approvingly of the arrest and attempted expulsion of a dozen Arab radicals picked up after the first bombing. The government admitted that it had no direct evidence against the detainees but stood on its right to expel “undesirable immigrants” without formal legal procedures. Some of those detained had established residence in France for more than 10 years. The cases are before the appeals courts.

The atmosphere was so highly charged that rumors spread that the government would try to reinstate the death penalty. Chirac, conscious of France’s position in the forefront against capital punishment, was quick to deny the reports.

As a target, France is surely paying for its Middle Eastern policies. Perhaps alone among European countries it has taken firm stands against those who could do the most harm. France’s support of Iraq has been unwavering in the Iran-Iraq War. Mitterand has twice sent French forces against Libya in Chad, to thwart Moammar Kadafi’s aggressions. In Lebanon, the French contingent, now the mainstay of the U.N. multinational border force, has had 160 members killed by terrorists since its installation.


Chirac’s measures against terrorism in France have provoked criticism among his opponents and no great prospect of success among his supporters. His demand for visas, for example, is unlikely to deter foreign terrorists from the Middle East. Such professionals already travel with their papers in order.

The announced effort to trace the connections of terrorists appears to be unlikely to yield results. If there is any rule of terrorism, it is unpredictability. The case of Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, whose release from French custody is the aim of the recent bombings (see related story by Stanley Meisler), is a cautionary example.

Abdallah and his Lebanese Revolutionary Armed Faction could serve as an object lesson for the tangled structure of terrorist organizations, and also for the futility of predicting their future actions. Apparently the nearly 20 terrorists of the Lebanese group so far identified are all from two villages in a Christian area of Lebanon that has been occupied by the Syrian Army since 1976. Abdallah--who at one time worked for the Libyan news agency Jana and has described himself as a “Maronite Marxist”--and his group have been implicated in attacks on both Israeli and American targets as well as the recent bombings in France.

The group apparently moved to Europe in 1981 and quickly spread out. So far, safe houses used by the group have been found in Rome, Paris and Madrid as well as Lyon. There are strong indications, according to investigators, that the Lebanese receive logistical help from Direct Action, the French terrorist organization that is still active, and the Red Brigades of Italy.

The Lebanese Revolutionary Armed Faction has been implicated in: an attack on Christian A. Chapman, the American charge d’affaires at the Paris Embassy, in November, 1981; the murder of a United States military attache in Paris, January, 1982; the murder of a second secretary in the Israeli Embassy, April, 1982; the death of two French bomb disposal experts who were removing a bomb from an American diplomat’s car in Paris, August, 1982; the explosion of an Israeli diplomat’s car, September, 1982, that wounded three passers-by, and the attempted assassination of Robert O. Homme, the United States counsel in Strasbourg, in 1984. Now Abdallah cohorts are apparently responsible for the deaths of a half-dozen more people, including innocent shoppers.

It seems illusory to suppose that the new French anti-terrorist effort--border controls, increased intelligence or offers of rewards--will bring arrests. In the past, the greatest successes of police forces in Europe against terrorism have been the result of accidents--a mushroom hunter stumbling on an arms cache, a spurned mistress informing on her lover, a customs guard curious about a strange bulge in a knapsack.


As one commentator said this week, it is necessary to learn to live with terrorism the way countries that have highways or airports learn to live with crashes. Otherwise the remedy can be worse than the disease.