Accused of being too lenient with terrorists, France toughens its stand

Faced with a sudden wave of terrorist acts, the French government is reluctantly having to reconsider its liberal approach toward terrorism.

Three terrorist attacks in recent weeks, coming on the heels of two earlier assaults on American diplomats, have shaken the Mitterrand government.

Diplomats here, and even government officials themselves, have begun questioning whether the government is too ''lax'' in dealing with terrorists.

In response, the government has backed away from its former unwavering opposition to the ''security and freedom'' bill--a tough law-and-order measure proposed by the previous government of Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

The government is on the spot over terrorism. It is squeezed between critics (domestic and foreign) who say it is too lenient, and many of its own supporters who say that firmer measures would be repressive. And the string of terrorist attacks going back to last November has given an edge to those wanting a tougher stand.

After the unsuccessful Nov. 12 attack against the American charge d'affaires, Christian Chapman, and the Jan. 18 murder of the American military attache, Lt. Col. Charles Ray, American officials protested the refusal of the French to extradite terrorists and the lenient French policy of granting political asylum.

''It creates a haven for terrorism,'' one American diplomat says. ''A lot of terrorism could have been avoided with stricter measures.''

The Americans also complain that France turns its back on terrorism as long as the target is not French. This accusation is not new. It has frequently surfaced in the German press. And, in comparison to Germany, Italy, and Britain, France has prided itself in being relatively unscathed by domestic terrorism.

Which is why the March 29 bombing of a Paris-Toulouse express train came as such a shock to the nation. Since then, the government has been treating the bombing, which killed five passengers and injured 27, as a national crisis.

President Mitterrand was informed of the news during the night while attending the European summit in Brussels, and the next day he dispatched Transport Minister Charles Fiterman to the scene near Limoges, France. There, Fiterman announced the government's intention of increasing police protection of train stations, and of reinforcing surveillance.

But before any calm could be restored, terrorists struck twice more, machine gunning the Israeli Defense Ministry buying office, and then on April 3 killing a middle-level Israeli diplomat, Yacov Barsimanitov, in front of his wife and family at his apartment.

Though such attacks against foreign diplomats and political exiles have taken place here before, they have escalated sharply in recent years. And the assaults this spring have been given huge displays by the French press.

A normally cautious official at the Interior Ministry even commented that the Socialist government has opened the door to such attacks with its laissez faire attitude toward international terrorism.

''The regime is very liberal,'' he said, insisting that his name be withheld. ''The terrorists have interpreted this as they wish, and have been encouraged by this leniency.''

The Socialist government has released some jailed Armenian terrorists as well as some Basque terrorists. ''They feel that they are freedom fighters like World War II resistance heros,'' the Interior Ministry official said.

Justice Miniser Robert Badinter spelled out the official government position in a February speech. He announced that France was reconsidering its extradition treaties with countries such as Turkey, Italy, and Spain, which it considered violators of human rights. A few days later, over strong Italian protests, the French released a suspected Red Brigade who had been captured in Metz, France.

Now, however, the Socialists sense that they are in danger of losing public support over their supposed liberal attitude toward terrorism. And this in the wake of their weak showing in last month's local elections.

Hence, Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy announced April 8 that the government would reconsider its attitude toward the ''security and freedom'' bill pending before parliament. The bill would increase the powers of the police; speed up the machinery of justice by bypassing the traditional examining magistrate in many cases; and stiffen court sentences by limiting judges' discretionary powers and mandating firm jail terms.

Mr. Mauroy said these proposals remain unacceptable as a whole to the Socialists. But his announcement was a complete about-face. As a result, it caused an uproar within the Socialist Party itself, leaving left-wingers fuming.

Mr. Mauroy rejected their arguments that civil rights should be the government's paramount concern. While insisting that he would not allow the fight against terrorism to spoil France's tradition of liberty - he said rights of assembly would not be infringed nor would France's policy of granting political asylum - he indicated that the government must be tougher.

''This government estimates that it is not possible to treat the problems of security theoretically,'' he said. It cannot turn its back on the ''violence which concerns Frenchmen directly in their daily life.''

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