The French public is being buffeted by a series of conflicting signals from its government about France's policy toward terrorism and the Middle East. ``There's a distinct feeling of contradiction,'' says Daniel Hermant, an expert on the issue of terrorism. ``You have firmness on the one hand and a willingness to strike deals on the other.''
Official statements repeating France's firm stand in dealing with international terrorists contrast with reports that France has been negotiating secretly with the Lebanese group thought to be behind the wave of bombings that struck Paris in September. After those attacks, French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac called for strong international action against terrorism. But last week, when Britain called for sanctions against Syria on grounds of Syrian involvement in a bomb plot, France rejected the call.
In September, French officials alluded to possible Syrian involvement in the bombings; now the interior minister speaks of a ``real collaboration'' between French and Syrian intelligence services to halt the bombings.
Recent reports by the daily, Le Monde, say France has communicated with the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Faction (LARF) through Syrian secret service members and an Algerian general. France reportedly asked LARF to halt attacks until February, the trial date set for Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, one of the group's leaders who is in a French jail. Le Monde said the verdict on Mr. Abdallah could turn out favorably for him. It also reported that France had made a deal with Elie Hobeika, former chief of the Christian Lebanese Forces militia, to take reprisals against the group in Lebanon if the bombings did not stop.
To knowledgeable observers here, the contrast between statements and actions in France's fight against terrorism is a reflection of the complex strategy France is employing to solve two of its major foreign policy problems - terrorism and the fate of eight French hostages in Lebanon.
Until recently, there was a certain willingness by the French government to negotiate with terrorist groups. In the spring of 1985, in return for the freedom of French diplomat Sidney Gilles Peyrolles, kidnapped by LARF, France was apparently prepared to reduce Abdallah's sentence. The French reneged on the deal when evidence turned up implicating Abdallah in the 1982 murders of an Israeli and a United States diplomat.
After a series of bombings in the spring, LARF set a new deadline of Sept. 1 for France to work out a formula for freeing Abdallah. The French government reportedly tried to negotiate a deal throughout the summer, but could not find a way around the legal complexities and US interest in the case to arrive at an early release. Since the bombings, France's strategy seems to have shifted.
``The government says they're not negotiating with terrorists,'' says one Middle East analyst. ``It's true. But they're negotiating with Syria and Algeria to put pressure on terrorists and are doing the same thing with Iran.''
Since Mr. Chirac came to power last spring, his government has made improving relations with Syria and Iran a foreign policy priority - with an eye to gaining the release of French hostages held in Lebanon, and preserving France's traditional influence in the Middle East.
France has made moves to mollify Iran which is annoyed over continuing French support of Iraq and a dispute involving a $1 billion loan made to France under the imperial regime. Earlier this year, the French expelled Iranian opposition exile leader Massoud Rajavi. And last week, France agreed in principle to repay some of the $1 billion loan.
There has even been speculation that France may be prepared to supply Iran with a certain amount of arms in its war with Iraq.
As for Syria, promises of financial aid and possible arms deals seem to be the trade-off for greater collaboration in fighting terrorism.
``The French are shifting from what they did before,'' one Western diplomat says. ``The bombings made it harder for them to cut a deal with the terrorists. Before, they could have quietly released Abdallah in October, but now he is notorious. So they're trying to get Syria and Hobeika to lean on the LARF.''
``It's by intelligence cooperation that the French are trying to beat terrorism,'' says Bassma Khodmani of the French Institute for International Relations.
Another player in the French antiterrorist initiative is Algeria, which after Syria and Iran is one of the Arab countries with the most influence in Lebanon. In return for Algerian help, France has reportedly made moves toward expelling 13 Algerian opposition figures residing here.
But the French distinction between dealing with terrorists and dealing ``government to government,'' in the words of Chirac's spokesman, has run into foul weather over France's reluctance to give Britian greater support in sanctions against Syria. Critics have also questioned the propriety of collaborating with the Syria.
President Fran,cois Mitterrand sought to push his conservative partner and rival Jacques Chirac toward greater cooperation with Europe by stating that if, at the coming meeting of European foreign ministers in London, the British proof of Syrian connivance is convincing, then ``particular arrangements must give way to solidarity against the crime.''