The surrender of hijackers who forced an Air France jet to fly to Tehran is fresh proof of a stern new French attitude toward terrorists. Wednesday's hijacking was the first major crisis faced by the new French prime minister, Laurent Fabius. It presented Mr. Fabius and President Francois Mitterrand with a big humanitarian and political problem. And it proved to be a test of whether France's Socialist government would keep to its recently formulated policy of cracking down on terrorists and standing up to their demands.
France has always prided itself on offering shelter to political refugees. This tradition came under increasing strain in the 1970s as it became evident that refugees were not always content to limit their action to propaganda and political arguments. Some used their French sanctuary as a base for terrorist action.
West European nations, notably West Germany, adopted a stern line toward international terrorists, but there was always some doubt about how firm the French were.
Such doubts were given substance in 1974 when then-President Valery Giscard d'Estaing overruled his prime minister and decided to bow to demands by hostage-takers at the French Embassy in The Hague. The hostage-takers demanded the liberation of an alleged Japanese terrorist who had been arrested previously by France's counterintelligence service.
The Socialists, who came to power in 1981, brought with them a fund of sympathy for political refugees and for exiles who claimed to represent oppressed regional minorities. Italian magistrates allege that a stream of Italian extremists have moved north to France since 1981. From Spain, leaders of the violent Basque movement ETA allegedly slipped across the Pyrenees to find sanctuary in France and then moved back to Spain on bombing or assassination missions. Leading Iranian politicians have flocked to France, making the Paris suburbs into a kind of Tehran-in-exile.
Socialist sentiments began to shift last year when foreign exiles engaged in violence on French soil. And infighting among Basques and anti-Basque extremist Spanish groups led to killings in southwest France.
President Mitterrand might boast that France was free from home-bred terrorism, but the imported brand was rising to worrisome proportions.
This brought a crackdown both on Middle East groups that had taken to settling scores in the streets of Paris and on the Basques.
French and Spanish police are now cooperating in efforts to check the traffic of people linked with violence across their mountain border. Extremist Basque leaders have been picked up in southern France and moved to the north or encouraged to leave Europe.
The hijacking of the Air France airliner to Tehran (diverted from its Frankfurt-to-Paris course) presented a problem of a different order. The plane was far from any French jurisdiction. When Iranian authorities intervened, no one in Paris knew what their attitude might be. The Iranians suggested that the French might make some concessions to the hijackers. The demands called for the freeing of five people being held in a French jail; the five were accused of trying to kill a former Iranian prime minister here. Above all, according to reports from French sources in Tehran, the Iranians insisted that they wanted to avoid any bloodshed.
The snag was that Paris had no way of knowing whether the hijackers would take the same attitude. All the signs were that they were ready for violence after they threatened to kill their French passenger hostages one by one. Why the hijackers finally gave in remained unknown as they were hustled away from Tehran airport by the Iranian authorities. The French think the hijackers finally realized that there was no way they could win.
The President and his young prime minister, who took office just two weeks ago, were probably influenced by general considerations arising from France's Middle East policy. Paris is a strong supporter of Iraq in its war with Iran. To have given way this time might have invited other extremists to take action against French property and citizens.
In being firm, Mitterrand may have bolstered France's resistance to terrorists and improved his own leadership image.