THE credibility of the government of French President Franois Mitterrand is very much at stake now in the still-widening Greenpeace incident. It was at best questionable for France to arrest four military men and charge them with endangering national security by leaking information to the press. The move has the appearance of a government effort to insulate high officials by restricting future information about the scandal, in which agents of the French secret service sank the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior in a New Zealand harbor.
Rather, the government should support a thorough and open investigation so that the public will be confident that all relevant facts have been unearthed. Beyond the government's own current inquiry, it might consider agreeing to opposition demands for a parliamentary inquiry.
France's action in sinking the vessel should not be played down. But how President Mitterrand responds to the current adversity is a major test for him, and more important than the original incident itself.
From a practical perspective, an effort to clamp a lid on future disclosures is likely to fail if anything is left to hide. French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius says that neither he nor President Mitterrand knew of the bombing and that the former defense minister and former head of the secret service bore the responsibility.
Should other officials have actually known of the incident in advance, that information will likely come out anyway, despite what one French newspaper called an attempt to intimidate the press by the charges against the four military officers. Journalists who printed information obtained from them could be jailed for five to 10 years.
France's now-acknowledged role in the sinking may not have surprised the French: Their nation's secret service has an unfortunate history of shady actions; for that matter, similar agencies in other nations sometimes have carried out actions that are difficult to defend.
Before the Greenpeace disclosures the Socialist Party of President Mitterrand was already considered to be in trouble in next spring's parliamentary elections.
In a democracy it is important that its citizens, and the world, are confident that they know the whole truth about a government's actions. That is one of the great advantages democracies have over communist or other totalitarian governments. France's future actions should encourage a full disclosure of the entire Greenpeace affair.