France's Regis Debray: revolutionary turned adviser

Does Regis Debray, a former friend of Che Guevara, cast a dark shadow over French-United States relations?

Yes, says a high-ranking US diplomat. No, say people with access to the inner councils of the French government.

Regis Debray's very name, not to mention his position as foreign political adviser to President Francois Mitterrand makes some high US officials shudder.

Indeed, he is reportedly perceived by some key members of the Reagan administration as having a subversive, behind-the-scenes influence on the French President. He is seen behind each French initiative that the US finds distasteful. This includes:

* The Franco-Mexican declaration calling for negotiations between guerrillas and government in El Salvador.

* France's decision to sell military hardware to Nicaragua.

As a matter of fact, however, Regis Debray does not play the part of a red ''eminence grise'' at the Elysee Palace. By his own admission and according to well-placed French sources Debray has considerably mellowed his ideological stance since the publication of his book, ''The Revolution Inside the Revolution'' in the mid-60s, which trumpeted Cuban-style guerrilla warfare in Bolivia. He is considered even more suspicious of the Soviet Union and of its global designs than other top Mitterrand officials.

''Besides, on basic East-West and North-South issues, Debray shares Mitterrand's philosophy, backs his strategy and has occasionally come out on the right of him,'' says a French official.

Debray has come a long way -- as he explained in an interview with the Monitor -- since the days when he was a friend of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Then a young upper-class Parisian, he was interested less in the Cuban political model than ''the technique of gaining power in an underdeveloped country,'' he says. He was impressed with Castro's notion of starting a revolution with a small military nucleus expected to later attract the political support of peasants and proletariat.

In Bolivia, he was jailed from 1967-70 for having allegedly carried a message from Castro to Guevara. ''In fact, I was covering Che's activity as a journalist , much as Edgar Snow once covered Mao's 'Long March,' '' says Debray. In prison, he had time to reconsider his views. Later he published, ''A Criticism of Weapons'' in which he describes violent revolution in the third world as ''suicidal'' and counterproductive.

Later, Debray made friends with Salvador Allende and studied the Chilean political process. But in late 1972, Debray began to link his views to the French humanist tradition -- writers like Victor Hugo and Emile Zola -- rather than Marx, Engels, and Lenin. His close friendship with Francois Mitterrand goes back to the days when French leftists branded him a traitor, an agent of the CIA.

Like Mitterrand, Debray believes in ''France's traditional mission as a champion of liberty and social justice.''

Debray remains a man of the left. He speaks out against injustice and exploitation. He stays in contact with third-world revolutionaries and leaders to keep these channels open for the French government.

In his view, as he told the Monitor, the Soviet Union is particularly dangerous because communism in 1917 failed to spread to industrialized Europe. The Soviet Union now attempts to outflank the West in the third world.

''We are faced with a terrifying perspective,'' he says. ''The East and the South ganging up against the North and West. . .

''Rather than leave the South with no alternative than to fall under Soviet dominance,'' Debray argues, ''we must win the South over to our side. This means that we must not turn our backs on the progressives and nationalists in the third world even when they call themselves Marxists.''

In France, Debray points to Mitterrand's successful strategy of reducing the strength of the Communist Party. After controlling about 20 percent of the vote since World War II, the French Communists scored only 13 percent at recent local elections. ''Give socialist strategy a chance worldwide,'' Debray says.

In Europe, people on both sides of the Iron Curtain, he says, no longer accept the artificial partition of Europe. In the third world, most people don't believe any more that the Soviet Union is their best hope.

In his latest book, ''A Critique of Political Reason,'' Debray contends that politics -- right, left or center -- springs from emotion rather than from reason. He also provides a devastating rebuff to Marxism.

At 41, with his droopy mustache and boyish smile. Debray is a soft-spoken but articulate French intellectual. In his tiny one-bedroom Left Bank apartment , crowded with books, he makes no apologies for his beliefs and friendships. But he wonders why some people in the US deal with him from preconceptions rather than from what he says he now stands for.

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