France recovers from Beirut bombing by backing the troops

A solemn drum roll sounded. The packed courtyard in the Invalides was hushed as France's dead from Beirut came home. President Francois Mitterrand was there to pin a medal of honor on each of the 58 coffins. But there were few tears. The farewell was stately and reserved.

This is partly a result of the reserved French nature, which makes shows of public emotion rare. But it is also a sign of how the tragedy had united the country behind a strong French role in Lebanon.

Before the bombing, a majority of Frenchmen expressed doubt about the country's continued presence in Beirut. After the bombing, though, a majority of those polled favored keeping French troops there. One hundred soldiers volunteered to go to Beirut to replace their dead and injured colleagues.

At the funeral, no one said the soldiers had died for no purpose. No one called for France to withdraw. France has a responsibility to Lebanon and to the West to stay, many said. If France leaves, chaos - even a world war - could result.

''We are there to keep the peace,'' said retired paratrooper Pierre Leroy. He drove 21/2 hours from his home in Normandy to put on his aging red beret and pay his respects. ''If we don't do it, who will? We have our responsibilities.''

Like many of the other mourners, Mr. Leroy recalled that France has a long historical and cultural relationship with Lebanon. In 1860, the French Army arrived in the region to help the Christians fight the Druze. In 1943, France virtually created the country.

''We must protect the Christians and rid Lebanon of the Syrians and the Soviets,'' said another former paratrooper, Renaud Jacquet. He, like many of his colleagues, called for France to retaliate for the recent bombings.

Only on this point does the national unanimity on Lebanon split. So far, the government has played down threats of delivering a riposte. While President Mitterrand has made it clear that France's enemies ''cannot continue to act with impunity,'' officials have also been saying that they would not be a party to an American escalation of the war.

''We only fire back when attacked,'' Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson said. ''The Americans do not exclude the possibility of firing in circumstances where their forces feel threatened.''

The conservative opposition sees this caution as dangerous timidity.

''We encourage the aggressor, if we don't respond,'' Gaullist Pierre Messmer, a former defense and prime minister, declared. ''Too often we have waited too long to respond to fire with fire.''

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