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On Libya, the French May Indeed Be Misunderstood

May 04, 1986|Paul L. Montgomery | Paul L. Montgomery is an American correspondent based in Brussels

PARIS — Each day since American jets roared off to attack Libya, French citizens in sensitive trades like tourism and entertainment have been reading the mounting bad news. Cab Calloway won't be coming this June for his scheduled club date, nor will Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson. Steven Spielberg and Sylvester Stallone will be among the no-shows at this month's Cannes festival. Some Philadelphia families in a student-exchange program have changed their minds about having French teen-agers as guests.

Air France says that more than 5,000 U.S. reservations have been withdrawn. Tour groups and symphony orchestras have cancelled. Cafes and hotels popular with Americans are less crowded than usual. Some authorities estimate that spring tourism from across the Atlantic is down 30% to 50%.

The dearth of Americans may be caused in part by fear of terrorism and the precipitous decline of the dollar, but it is clearly fueled by France's refusal to let U.S. bombers fly over French territory on the Libya raid--and its impact is not limited to cancelled vacations.

France has long been famous for pursuing a highly individualistic foreign policy, and can often be found at international gatherings marching with panache in one direction while the other participants go off in another. One exasperated diplomat has remarked that French negotiators seem to equate agreement with surrender. The French say they simply hold to a strict standard of fact and morality.

The usual complaint from the French in their frequent contretemps is that they are misunderstood. In the case of their position regarding Libya and terrorism, they seem for once to have a good case.

There is no doubt that the French denial of airspace added thousands of miles to the mission of the F-111s. It is worth remembering that the bombers also had to skirt Portugal and Spain. (Spain has U.S. naval and air bases; France does not.) It is problematic whether any U.S. allies on the Continent would have provided use of bases or air space. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's acquiescence in Britain brought harsh attacks from the opposition and some second thoughts from members of her own party.

President Francois Mitterrand is also perceived by some as an appeaser to terrorists, unwilling to risk French effort or French lives to protect the non-French. Though such a sentiment was heard regularly when the French president took office in 1981, it has little currency now among anti-terrorist specialists. They marvel, in fact, over how far Mitterrand has advanced in five years.

One of Mitterrand's first acts on taking office was to declare amnesty for many arrested terrorists. At the same time, he reaffirmed France's historic position as a refuge for political exiles. No sooner were the domestic terrorists of such groups as Action Directe out of prison than they began bombing and shooting in the name of anti-apartheid, anti-NATO, anti-Israel and assorted other causes. Armenian and Palestinian terrorists added their anger, supplemented by Basque separatists and France's own Corsican nationalists.

In the summer of 1982, there were more than 30 terrorist incidents in Paris alone. Mitterrand's crackdown began. Soon French experts, previously aloof, were cooperating with Italian and West German counterparts. As the Euroterrorists of West Germany, France, Belgium and perhaps Italy set interlocking goals, France has joined other affected countries in concerted police action. Last week, in a departure from previous positions, Mitterrand said he was in favor of an international anti-terrorist organization.

Considering that the Socialist president was a staunch supporter of the U.S. plan to place missiles in Europe, and that he has implacably opposed--with arms--Moammar Kadafi's expansionist aims in the former French colony of Chad, observers favorably disposed to France can only blink in wonder when Americans call Mitterrand a faithless ally.

Most Americans remember their 241 countrymen murdered by a bomb at the Marine headquarters in Beirut in October, 1983. How many remember that 58 French troops from the same peacekeeping force were killed by another bomb?

By far the largest cause of misunderstanding, however, is the political situation in France since the March 16 elections. For the first time in the Fifth Republic, France has a president from one party and a prime minister from the opposition. The sharing of power--called cohabitation, coexistence, even concertation--creates problems and doubts as to who answered when the Reagan Administration asked France for help in the raid on Libya. According to most sources, Mitterrand had little or no consultation with Jacques Chirac, the conservative prime minister, before denying French airspace.

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