PARIS — The new reign of terror has shattered the nerves of Parisians and has also shattered two traditional assumptions of French policy. For years, French governments, whether conservative or leftist, believed that it was possible and fruitful to negotiate with international terrorists and that it was possible and wise to keep France aloof from all the turmoil.
But the bombings have killed eight people and wounded more than 150 during September, and Thursday's assassination of a French military attache in Christian East Beirut made a mockery of prior assumptions. The French policy on terrorism did buy peace for some time. But now the policy, based on the confidence of the French in their own subtlety, appears to have made matters worse.
The terrorists, in fact, insist that their current fury is founded on the French government's failure to keep its word after secret negotiations. If the French had not reneged, according to the terrorists, 35-year-old Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, accused of complicity in the murder of a U.S. military attache, Lt. Col. Charles Ray, and an Israeli diplomat, Yacov Barsimantov, would now be free. The terrorists claim that they will continue bombing until Abdallah and two other prisoners are set free.
Abdallah's case reveals a good deal about the mire produced by French willingness to negotiate. Evidently convinced that Israeli agents intended to kill him, Abdallah entered a Lyon police station in 1984 and asked for French protection. But the police, who knew something about him, saw that he carried a phony Algerian passport and arrested him for possession of false papers.
Abdallah turned out to be a member of an organization known as the Lebanese Revolutionary Armed Faction, made up, it seems, mainly of Lebanese Christians from his home town of Kobeyat in northern Lebanon. This organization, which had boasted of killing the American and Israeli officials, kidnaped the director of the French cultural center in the Lebanese city of Tripoli in 1985 and demanded the release of Abdallah in exchange for their hostage.
Using Algerian officials as intermediaries, the French government, then run by the Socialists, entered into negotiations with the kidnapers. As a result, the kidnapers released the director of the cultural center in March, 1985.
What did the French promise in exchange? According to Charles Pasqua, a conservative who is now minister of the interior, the Socialist government promised to release Abdallah and then reneged. According to the Socialists, the government promised only that Abdallah, once justice had run its course, would not be turned over to his enemies in the Christian Falange in Beirut.
Whatever the promise, a complication arose. Police discovered a cache of weapons in a Paris apartment rented by Abdallah, including the gun used to kill Ray and Barsimantov. Police charged him with complicity in the two murders, making his release far more difficult.
At the end of 1985 and the beginning of 1986, a flurry of bombings struck Paris. The bombers were obviously trying to apply pressure to the French during negotiations. But police were not sure which negotiations. The French were also negotiating at the time with the kidnapers of other French hostages in Lebanon and with the extreme Palestinian terrorists of the Abu Nidal organization.
By March it became obvious that friends of Abdallah were behind the terrorism. After a dramatic bombing the day that the new conservative government of Premier Jacques Chirac took over, there was a lull; new negotiations may have begun. The terrorists now say that they reached agreement with an emissary of the government in May who promised to resolve "the Abdallah problem" by the end of July.
Denis Baudouin, Chirac's spokesman, told reporters Thursday that the terrorists' claim "seems completely absurd and false." But when Abdallah came to trial in July on charges of false papers and illegal possession of weapons, the French prosecutor, to the consternation of the U.S. government, asked for no more than a four-year sentence. Finding Abdallah guilty, the judge imposed this relatively light sentence, making Abdallah eligible for parole almost immediately.
The United States, however, protested and demanded that Abdallah be tried on charges of complicity in the 1982 murder of Lt. Col. Ray. France, facing an angry row with the United States if it released Abdallah, did not do so. Apparently in retaliation, the new and more murderous wave of bombings began on Sept. 8.
An almost cynical and selfish nationalism has powered some French negotiations in the past. In the Abu Nidal case, for example, France agreed to parole two convicted Palestinians provided that Abu Nidal's followers would commit no terrorist act on French soil.
After the group kept its promise for three years, France released the two prisoners. In the meantime, Abu Nidal committed a bloody procession of terrorist acts in the rest of the world.