In an attempt to put an end to the swirling political controversy surrounding Palestinian guerrilla leader George Habash's entry into France last week for medical treatment, President Francois Mitterrand on Tuesday dismissed the matter as "not serious" but only "an error of judgment" on the part of senior French bureaucrats.
Mitterrand, despite pressure from opposition leaders and even some members of his own Socialist Party, refused to remove the government of Prime Minister Edith Cresson over what he angrily described on national television as a "puffed-up souffle" cooked up by the press.
But he called for a special meeting of the National Assembly here on Friday to debate the Habash case and allow opposition parties to offer a motion of censure--equivalent to a parliamentary vote of no confidence--against the government.
Habash, 65, leader of the terrorism-linked Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was allowed to enter France last week for treatment of a heart condition. After his arrival sparked a political furor, Habash was placed under police custody. He was allowed to leave France on Saturday after doctors reported that he was too ill to undergo interrogation.
But four senior civil servants and a close adviser to Mitterrand were fired for taking part in the decision to allow Habash, whom Mitterrand described as a "retired terrorist," into the country.
Opposition leaders, sensing a golden opportunity, also called for the resignation of Cresson, Foreign Minister Roland Dumas and Interior Minister Philippe Marchand. Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing called for immediate elections for the French National Assembly, although such elections are not mandated by law until 1993.
Although it made less of a splash outside France, the Habash affair has acted as a lightning rod for accumulated frustration, resentment and impatience in the French political scene, dominated for nine of the last 11 years by the Socialists.
The controversy over Habash has also deepened divisions within Mitterrand's own Socialist Party. Only a week ago, for example, Michel Rocard, the former French prime minister, was considered almost certain to replace the aging Mitterrand as the next presidential candidate of the governing party.
Rocard, 61, was scoring near the top of public opinion polls and Mitterrand, 75, whose own popularity keeps dropping like a rock, had given his indirect nod of approval. But because of his independent stand in the Habash case, Rocard suddenly is very much out of favor with Mitterrand and his crowd. Rocard's brief role as the consensus Socialist dauphin is in jeopardy.
"A sunshine sailor," sniped Dumas, one of Mitterrand's closest collaborators, about Rocard on Tuesday. Dumas attacked Rocard for taking what he called an opportunistic political stand.
Rocard's crime: He dared to go on French TV over the weekend and suggest the resignations of the government ministers--including Dumas and Marchand--responsible for admitting Habash.
Such internecine conflicts, along with the traditional French boredom with the status quo, have fueled the growing political malaise in France. A poll released Tuesday by Le Parisien newspaper showed that 55% of the French public wants immediate parliamentary elections. The same percentage wants Socialist Prime Minister Cresson to resign.