France's hostage crisis. In heat of election campaign, kidnappings highlight ambiguities in foreign policy

Only days before France's scheduled parliamentary elections, President Fran,cois Mitterrand's government has found itself saddled with a sudden -- and apparently escalating -- foreign policy crisis in the Mideast The government's handling of the crisis, involving French hostages in Lebanon, has not yet become an election issue. For now, most of the leaders of the conservative opposition have pledged their support for the government.

But the crisis has highlighted the ambiguities of French policy in the Middle East and brought renewed charges in the press that the government has been soft on terrorism.

The crisis escalated with the reported killing Monday of one French hostage and the kidnapping of a four-man French TV crew last weekend. The latest abductions brought to eight the number of French nationals being held hostage in Lebanon.

The apparent ambiguity in France's Mideast policy stems from its two-track approach. France has been a major supplier of arms to Iraq in the 5-year-old Persian Gulf war and has thus alienated both Syria and Iran. In an effort to balance French policy in the region, Minister for External Relations Roland Dumas recently began making discreet contacts with the Iranians.

But instead of cultivating friends in both camps, this tactic has raised suspicions of French intentions in both Baghdad and Tehran, analysts say.

Relations with both nations took a further slide after two recent revelations.

Iraq expressed its concern following recent press reports that French munitions have been turning up in Iran. The shipments are small but apparently have been underway for several months. In addition, last week France turned over two pro-Iranian Iraqi dissidents to Baghdad, where they are likely to be executed, according to some observers. French officials later admitted that the expulsion was the result of an administrative error.

Meanwhile, on Monday, member of the fundamentalist Shiite Muslim group, Islamic Jihad (Holy War), released a photograph purporting to show the body of Michel Seurat, one of the French hostages captured last May. The uncertainty about the fate of Mr. Seurat, whom friends say could have been sleeping in the photograph, was compounded by questions about the television crew. An anonymous caller had claimed responsibility for the latest kidnapping on behalf of Islamic Jihad, but the group later denied any connection.

Confusion was compounded by the outrage of a nation in the midst of an election campaign. Tuesday morning, much of the French press published bold headlines with Seurat's picture.

In a nationally televised statement, Prime Minister Laurent Fabius warned that there could be ``escalation in the violence.'' Noting that the terrorists had chosen to act at the height of the election campaign to pressure the French government, Mr. Fabius declared: ``The kidnappers must know that we will not give in.''

Islamic Jihad has demanded that France arrange the release of the two pro-Iranian dissidents deported to Iraq last week. Other conditions are said to include an end to French support for Iraq in the Gulf war and the release of several Arabs held in French jails.

In a statement released with the picture of Seurat, Islamic Jihad said that the three other French hostages it holds -- journalist Jean-Paul Kauffmann and diplomats Marcel Carton and Marcel Fontaine -- would be killed if the kidnappers' demands were not met swiftly. The group is also believed to be holding six Americans and one Briton. While insisting he would not give in to the terrorists, Fabius has dispatched emissaries to Damascus, Beirut, and Baghdad.

Islamic Jihad has said that the only mediator it would accept is a Lebanese-born French physician named Razah Raad, who has also flown to Damascus to aid in the talks.

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