Despite the heavy shelling of the peacekeeping force in Beirut, both French and Italian leaders have made it clear that their soldiers will stay in Lebanon. Unlike in the United States, no public outcry has erupted to bring home the 2 ,000 French and 2,000 Italian troops. Instead, there is a consensus that the danger of the troops becoming sitting ducks in an escalating civil war is the necessary price to pay for helping to achieve peace in Lebanon.
''There is no thought of pulling our troops out,'' a French Foreign Ministry official said. ''Italy will respect its commitments,'' Italian Foreign Minister Guilio Andreotti said.
But both governments emphasize that these commitments are limited. Their soldiers are in Lebanon to serve as a buffer between foreign armies and not to side with any of the warring Lebanese factions, they explain.
The British role in the multinational force is even more limited, say officials in London. Only about 100 Queen's Dragoon Guards have been sent to Beirut. The danger the guards face has drawn little notice, reports David Willis from London. The public statements that have been made emphasize that the British role will remain small. The government has not even issued a statement on the guards' fate in nearly two weeks.
The same line is being aired in Paris and Rome: The French and the Italians are unlikely to increase the number of their soldiers in the multinational force and deploy them between the Druzes and Christians fighting in the Shouf Mountains.
Although no formal decision about the matter has been made yet because the Lebanese government has not formally requested an increased deployment, the Europeans are trying their best to stay out of the fighting. The Italians have largely succeeded, but the French, deployed in the center of west Beirut, have come under heavy fire. So far seven French soldiers have been killed in action, including a paratrooper colonel; 14 others have been wounded.
But even as French causualties have mounted, the government of Francois Mitterrand has reacted cautiously. At the beginning of the month, France sent an aircraft carrier, the Foch, to Lebanon. Last week, French Super Etendard jets flew warning missions around Beirut.
Defense Minister Charles Hernu explained that the moves show France's determination to defend its troops. If the shelling does not stop, ''We will demolish the batteries,'' he said. To press home the point, Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson hurried out of a Cabinet meeting to telephone his Syrian counterpart and tell him that the shelling must stop.
The shelling stopped for a day. It then resumed and the French Super Etendards flew more warning missions. The shelling again stopped. Not once did the French open fire.
This cat and mouse game shows how keen the French are to limit their involvement. To retain their neutrality and reduce the need for a costly increase in their military effort while they are deploying another major military mission in Chad, the French want to avoid shooting at all costs.
It is on this point that most of the public questions about the role of French troops in Lebanon have been directed. In a statement echoed by commentators along almost the entire political spectrum, the prestigious daily Le Monde editorialized, ''In taking the courageous decision to help reestablish the peace in Lebanon, one must hope that the French government is aware that its Army may have to fight.''
As the Le Monde editorial suggests, even those questioning the government's strategy have deep feelings that France should keep its troops in Lebanon. France feels an emotional responsibility to its former colony. It has strong economic interests in the Middle East.
In Italy, a similar patriotism seems to have created a national consensus for keeping the troops in Lebanon, reports Janet Stobart from Rome. The dispatch of the troops has given the country a vivid sense of pride. Glowing reports of the bravery of the Italian men-in-arms have filled the press.
''This has been a proving ground for the Italian soldier who has always been denigrated and the subject of irony,'' said the task force's commander, General Angioni, in a widely quoted interview. ''He has shown himself to be a soldier like any other, serious and disciplined.''
Whether this national consensus will hold if an Italian soldier is killed is unknown. Some concern about this possibility has emerged: The Communist Party and other left-wing groups have supported the government decision to deploy troops but are urging withdrawal if the danger to the soldiers continues to increase.