An explosive trial testing France's will to fight terrorism opens today. The accused is Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, the leader of a Lebanese group suspected of terrorizing Paris with a wave of bomb attacks last September. Mr. Abdallah faces three charges: attempted murder of an American diplomat in Strasbourg in 1984, and complicity in the murders of two diplomats - one American, the other Israeli - in Paris in 1982.
Abdallah's trial puts the French government in a delicate position. If he is convicted, members of his group have threatened to renew bomb attacks in the streets of Paris once again. If Abdallah is acquitted or given a short sentence, the French will be accused of caving in to terrorist blackmail.
``Here we have caught one of the major terrorists of the 1980s,'' one Western diplomat says. ``This is a critical case. It will show how far we are prepared to stick it to terrorists.''
(Separately, French police scored a major anti-terrorist success over the weekend, arresting four leaders of the domestic guerilla group Direct Action. Story, Page 14.)
Traditionally, France has preferred to negotiate with terrorists rather than fight them. Jacques Verg`es, Abdallah's lawyer, said in an interview that the French diplomats struck a bargain back in October 1984 to free Abdallah in return for the release of Gilles Peyroles, a French diplomat kidnapped in Lebanon.
Mr. Peyroles was released. But before Abdallah could be set free, French police raided a Paris apartment, finding a Czechoslovakian-made pistol that was apparently used to kill the American and Israeli diplomats. Abdallah's fingerprints were found nearby. In a decision handed down last July in Lyon, Abdallah was given a four-year sentence for the illegal possession of arms, criminal association, and carrying false papers.
The new trial follows US intervention. The US Embassy complained that the Lyon verdict was too lenient. Later, the widow of slain US diplomat Col. Charles Ray served a writ as a civil plaintiff. US officials here say their motive is to pressure the French to become tougher against terrorism.
It could prove to be a risky strategy. Lawyer Verg`es is an articulate, if controversial, defender of unpopular causes.
He has emphasized that he will aim to turn the trial into a spectacle focusing on US foreign policy. First, he says, he will blame US actions in the Middle East for causing terrorism. Then he will zero in and portray France as an American puppet. ``This is political trial,'' he says. ``The French government is caving in to American pressure.''
Although Verg`es's tactic could score points, given the touchiness the French have about maintaining an independent stance, the prosecution has assembled a 5,000 page dossier of evidence against Abdallah.
In addition to the pistol found in Abdallah's Paris apartment, security sources say eyewitnesses have identified Abdallah's girlfriend, Jacqueline Esber, as the actual murderer. Ms. Esber is on trial in absentia.
``While Abdallah didn't pull the trigger, he was the brains behind the attacks,'' one security source says. ``He gave the orders and furnished the means.''
Most damning to Abdallah's case is a map of the city of Strasbourg that was retrieved in a car bought by Abdallah and abdandoned in Yugoslavia.
Written in the margin is the address of the Israeli diplomat and crossed out is the home address of American consul Robert Homme. Mr. Homme barely escaped an assasination attempt in March 1984.
After the intervention of Georges Kiejman, the lawyer representing Colonel Ray's widow in the case, a handwriting analysis was taken of the map. It was concluded that the writing was Abdallah's.
``The evidence may not be shut and clear,'' the security source concludes, ``but it's pretty ... strong.''
But diplomatic and political considerations, not the strength of the evidence, could prove decisive.
A group demanding Abdallah's release claimed responsibility for last September's bombings which killed 11 people and wounded more than 150.
Despite French denials, there are signs supporting rumors that France negotiated a six-month cease-fire with Abdallah's followers on the understanding that he would be tried before March 1 - and then freed.
Mr. Kiejman, for one, charged in an interview that the case was advanced precipitously to its present Feb. 23 date.
``Because of the threats, the authorities obviously want to move quickly,'' Kiejman said. ``I would have prefered to wait until the end of March.''
Other legal questions cloud the trial.
Abdallah will not be judged by a jury. Seven judges will decide on the evidence presented in court. This novel procedure, employed under a new law passed by parliament last December, is being used in terrorism cases because the French urban guerilla group Direct Action have scared jurors in other cases by threatening to assassinate them.
The judges also face similar threats. Their names will be released only when the trial starts. During and after the trial, they will also travel in armor-plated cars under police escort and be protected by round-the-clock bodyguards.
Security fears spread beyond the judges. To guard against a repetition of the bombings, police say that some 1,000 riot policemen and gendarmes from the provinces have reinforced the regular Paris police force. The extra police will be stationed at major department stores and other crowded points such as railroad stations.
The trial is expected to last one week.
Kiejman and the prosecution will be pushing for the maximum life sentence. Verg`es hopes that his client will, at the most, receive a four-year sentence. Under French law, that sentence would be combined with Abdallah's present four-year sentence, leaving him eligible for parole as early as next month.
``This trial speaks to the question of how France deals with terror,'' the Western diplomat says.
``In the short run,'' he adds in conclusion, ``letting Abdallah go might ease terrorist pressure. In the long run, it would show that the French government is soft, that terrorists can get what they want if they threaten retaliation.''