Its promoters call it a return to respect for the law. Its opponents deem it a shocking retreat to Bismarck's Germany. ''It'' is the controversial draft law basically approved by the West German Cabinet July 13 tightening restrictions on demonstrations. In classic fashion, it pits law-and-order conservatives against civil rights liberals over a requirement that even peaceful protesters leave the site of a demonstration if there is violence and police order an area to be cleared.
In Germany this was a legal provision from the 19th century of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck through the reforms of the Social Democratic-Liberal coalition in the early 1970s. Now that the government has reverted to a conservative-liberal coalition - and with the prospect of a coming ''hot fall'' of anti-nuclear protests - this regulation is being reintroduced. Penalties for noncompliance could include a year's imprisonment.
The strongest push for the new legislation comes from the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian right-wing sister party of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union and the party that has the Interior Ministry portfolio under Friedrich Zimmermann.
The CSU and the CDU find it scandalous that ringleaders of the several hundred ''chaotics'' who exploit peace demonstrations to fight with the police can generally be detained only overnight under existing laws.
The harshest criticism of the new legislation has come from opposition Social Democrats, from the president of the Supreme Federal Court, and from some police spokesmen.
The Social Democrats fear that the new law will put such a burden of proof of innocence on peaceful demonstrators that it could be used - especially by a CSU-led Interior Ministry - to harass peaceful antinuclear demonstrators.
In legal terms, Supreme Court President Gerd Pfeiffer argued in a news magazine this month that a law that treated all peaceful demonstrators as lawbreakers simply because they didn't leave a site on request would violate presumption of innocence.
Berlin police president Klaus Hubner, police union chairman Gunter Schroder, and the German Society of Judges have also counseled against the new legislation. Urban police unions in Germany have a long Social Democratic tradition.
In the middle of the controversy sit the unhappy Liberals, the small swing-vote Free Democratic Party that from 1969 to 1982 was allied with the Social Democrats and since October of last year has been allied with the conservatives. The Liberals have long considered themselves the watchdogs of civil rights. In the Social Democratic-Liberal coalition they held the Interior Ministry portfolio, and they tended to be even more zealous than their partners on civil rights issues.
In the present coalition the Liberals gave up the Interior post to the CSU and got the Justice Ministry instead. They have now yielded to conservative pressures in approving the draft legislation on demonstrations. Liberal parliamentary speaker for domestic policy Burkhard Hirsch has stated, however, that he hopes that pre-vote Bundestag hearings in the fall will persuade his conservative allies that the proposed legislation is not necessary.
As some compensation for the prospective curtailing of demonstration rights, the Liberals did get the Cabinet to approve liberalization of the 1977 ''contact blocking law.'' Under this law - passed in two days under a blitz procedure at the time of the kidnapping of Hanns-Martin Schleyer and the related hijacking of a Lufthansa jet - jailed terrorists and terrorist suspects can in an emergency be deprived of the right to see their lawyers. This law was invoked in 1977, but has not been used since then.
Under the liberalization, which also was approved by the Cabinet July 13, prisoners under such a ban would be allowed to see a court-appointed lawyer on application to the appropriate state court.