The French government is walking a political tightrope between Lebanese Christians who think a French naval force off Lebanon is their military salvation and pro-Syrian Lebanese militias who see it as an invasion fleet.
For the second time in three days, French President Francois Mitterrand insisted Wednesday that the eight warships, including the aircraft carrier Foch, are being sent into Lebanese waters as part of a "rescue mission," concerned primarily with 7,000 French citizens living in Lebanon.
"Some pretend to confuse the rescue mission with a military action," Mitterrand told members of the Cabinet. "Others wrongly think the French navy is at their disposal. No country or group has the right to dictate what France should do as far as Lebanon is concerned."
Cartoonists' Field Day
Political analysts and cartoonists have been having a field day with the government's ambiguous intentions. A cartoon in the newspaper Le Monde shows Mitterrand talking to a pilot in a French warplane heavily armed with missiles and bombs. "Try not to look too mean," he tells the pilot.
The main purpose of Mitterrand's statements, made Wednesday in Paris and earlier in Spain, apparently is to project a position of neutrality between the Christian and pro-Syrian Muslim forces.
When Prime Minister Michel Rocard, who is on an extended trip to the South Pacific, suggested that the French ships might be used to take military action if necessary, Mitterrand, in Madrid, quickly shot back:
"I reject the idea that we can act militarily with ships fulfilling a humanitarian mission."
Ordered to Lebanon
The French naval operation began Aug. 15 when the frigate Duquesne, armed with missiles, was ordered to the Lebanese coast. The Duquesne and two other ships are said to have arrived and were expected to be joined soon by the carrier Foch, which is capable of carrying 40 aircraft, and four other ships.
The differing views of what France expects to achieve has put Rocard's Socialist government in a delicate position. But Mitterrand so far has heard little serious criticism.
France has a long history of intervention in Lebanon, which it ruled as a League of Nations protectorate until 1943. Lebanese political interests, particularly on the French-speaking Christian side, run deep in France; Lebanese businessmen are active and generous contributors to political parties.
"The naval mission is justified and appropriate," said center-right opposition leader Didier Bariani, who is the mayor of one of the districts of Paris. "Effective help is the most effective method in a place where some want to commit genocide."
In their background briefings, French officials contend that their main purpose in mounting the mission to Lebanon is to "wake up" the rest of the world, including the United States, to the problems in Lebanon.