DISINFORMATION. Truth is the best defense. Case study: France. The conviction of a longtime agent of influence

FRENCH publicist Pierre-Charles Path'e, son of the French film tycoon, acted as a paid agent of influence for the Soviet Union from 1961 until his arrest in 1979. He targeted both the French public and elite, not only writing newspaper and magazine articles and moving in Parisian salon society, but also circulating his newsletter ``Synthesis'' to 70 percent of the members of France's Chamber of Deputies, 47 percent of Senate members, and several dozen journalists and ambassadors.

``Synthesis'' consistently berated the United States as a ``police democracy'' and enforcer of ``the American empire for 30 years . . . [through] force and corruption.'' It castigated France for getting too close to the US and portrayed West Germany as being riddled with crypto-Nazis and too pro-American, while it praised East Germany as economically progressive.

Had Mr. Path'e been operating under US guarantees of free speech, he probably could not have been convicted for anything more serious than failing to register as a lobbyist for a foreign nation. But the French state security court sentenced him in 1980 to five years in prison for being an agent of influence for the Soviets -- and his case offers the only court-documented example so far of Soviet news media disinformation in the West.

His impact on French opinion therefore merits closer examination -- and is very hard to pin down.

Path'e may well have exerted influence throughout the 1960s and early '70s. But he may just have reflected the general disdain for the US and leniency toward the Soviet Union that was fashionable among intellectuals and Gaullists as well as France's powerful Communists. Certainly there was a popular predisposition to dismiss (in the 1930s) or excuse (in the 1960s) Stalin's murderous purges.

Then three things happened.

First, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote searing expos'es of the world of the Soviet prison camp -- and, uniquely, his works continued to have a large readership in the West even after he himself was expelled from the Soviet Union.

Second, the US got out of the Vietnam war, stopped ostracizing China, entered d'etente with the Soviet Union -- and was no longer perceived by Frenchmen as a cold-war ogre.

Third, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and underwrote martial law in Poland -- the latter a country that has enjoyed France's special affection ever since Napoleon's officers brought back brides from Warsaw.

The upshot was French revulsion toward the Soviet Union, new admiration for the exuberant Americans, wholesale intellectual desertion of Marxism for neo-conservatism, a plunge of the French Communist Party to an all-time low of 11 percent of votes last year -- and election of a Socialist President who has been much tougher toward Moscow than his conservative predecessors were.

Public opinion shows just how dramatic the disillusionment with Moscow has been. The number of those who believe the Soviet Union sincerely desires peace sank from 58 percent in 1975 to 24 percent after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Conclusion: In this case Solzhenitsyn and Soviet foreign policy eventually overwhelmed Path'e and Soviet disinformation. -- 30 --

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