The French fight against terrorism has reached a decisive stage. So far, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac is standing tough, despite a continuing wave of bombings in Paris. Mr. Chirac this week announced a series of strong domestic antiterrorist measures -- including a provision that most foreigners, including Americans, must obtain visas to visit France.
Mr. Chirac is also holding firm on the role of French peacekeeping troops in south Lebanon. Despite increasing attacks on the French soldiers, the prime minister has reaffirmed that the troops will not be withdrawn.
Experts are asking how long the prime minister can hold to his tough line. They fear attacks will increase in Paris and in Lebanon. Yesterday a bomb blast in the central Paris police station killed one and injured 51 people.
``Chirac is caught between two fires,'' says Philippe Moreau Defarges, of the French Institute of Foreign Relations. ``He has promised that law and order would improve under his government, so he has to be strong. But as fear grows among the public, he will be under pressure for a quick solution.''
Chirac's dilemma stems from his long, unhappy experience with terrorism. Like many members of his government, Chirac fought during the war of independence in Algeria. As bombs exploded in bars, stadiums, and supermarkets at the end of 1956, the French government sent in the Army. The ensuing Army crackdown escalated into the infamous ``Battle of Algiers,'' which eventually led to the collapse of the French government.
``Chirac cannot have forgotten these lessons,'' wrote Jean Planchais in yesterday's edition of the daily Le Monde. ``If he uses too much repression, overstepping the law, then the politicians sign their own death sentences.''
When Chirac first became prime minister in the early 1970s, he tried to avoid a heavy-handed approach. When the Socialists came to power in 1981, they followed a similar policy. President Fran,cois Mitterrand granted amnesty to suspected Corsican and left-wing French terrorists, reduced the powers of the police to hold prisoners, and overturned court-ordered extraditions of Italian Red Brigade members and Spanish Basque terrorists.
Acts of terrorism increased. In 1982, the country was battered by more than 100 attacks. President Mitterrand cracked down, forming a special antiterrorist force and beefing up security along the nation's borders.
The toughening attitude is clearest in France's handling of Basque terrorism. After France had long given suspected Basque terrorists political asylum, the Socialists began extraditing them to Spain in 1984.
The recent wave of bombings in Paris, which have killed five and injured more than 200, represents a more severe test of this resolve. If subsequent claims are to believed, the Committee for Solidarity with Arab Political Prisoners is responsible. It is a Middle Eastern group seeking the release of three convicted or suspected terrorists who are being held in French prisons.
Some members of the Chirac government have reportedly pressed for releasing these men. But Chirac has refused.
In addition to the new requirements on visas, Chirac announced in an interview a plan to deploy French troops at the frontiers and expel those threatening public order. Police rounded up 20 Lebanese suspects in Paris on Tuesday.
Only citizens of European Community nations and Switzerland will be excepted from the new visa requirement, which is to last for at least six months. The law goes into effect today. For the next 15 days travelers will be able to obtain visas on arrival at airports or border crossings. After that, they will have to get them from French consulates before leaving home. Beginning in October, anyone arriving in France without the visa stamp will risk being sent back.
So far, the French public supports Chirac's stand. Two opinion polls released at the end of last week showed that more three-fourths of the public wants to keep the terrorists in jail.
``Now it depends on how much backbone the population of Paris has,'' says one Western expert on terrorism. ``If the attacks continue, they could go either way and push Chirac along.''
The increase of terrorist activity and the recent attacks on French peacekeeping troops in Lebanon may still hurt Chirac politically. President Mitterrand has pushed the prime minister to the front line of the fight against terrorism, and has himself stayed in the background.
``Chirac came to office with unemployment and the economy his chief priorities,'' says Mr. Moreau Defarges.
``Now he is preoccupied by terrorism -- a problem to which there is no easy solution.''