When the private jet bringing two French hostages home from Lebanon landed in Paris recently, French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua was aboard, reportedly looking ``discreet as a violet but very proud.'' The controversial Mr. Pasqua had moved to the center stage of French politics. His success in obtaining the return of TV cameraman Jean-Louis Normandin and photographer Roger Auque - as well as two other major victories against terrorism - has made him a star asset for conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's campaign for the presidency next spring.
Pasqua's recent acclaim is somewhat startling, as only a year ago many in France were calling for his dismissal. Some still criticize him for making a ``deal'' with Iran to free the two hostages; Socialist President Francois Mitterrand questioned his decision to expel l7 anti-Khomeini Iranian exiles, saying it undermined France's tradition of providing asylum to foreign political dissidents.
The job of interior minister rarely has been a popular one. Dubbed ``France's No. 1 cop,'' Pasqua bore ultimate responsibility when police shot two youths in separate incidents, allegedly without justification, in the summer of l986, and when a student died following a police beating during demonstrations last December.
Critics also recall Pasqua's association during the l960s with a private police force, organized by Charles de Gaulle and banned after some of its members were accused of criminal activity.
Pasqua has been linked to alleged underhanded dealings related to political scandals that have rocked Mr. Chirac's government. Asked to comment, Pasqua asserted on French TV: ``Democracy stops where the interests of the state begin.''
While some might see Pasqua as an overzealous advocate of law and order, many in France appear willing to forgive Pasqua's methods in view of his successes. The right-wing daily, Le Figaro, named him ``Man of the Year'' in November; a cover story in the center-right magazine Le Point detailed his recent successes; and even Mr. Mitterrand saluted the ``excellent results of Mr. Pasqua.''
At the end of November, after a 20-month search, Pasqua's police arrested Max Frerot, alleged hit man for the extreme left-wing terrorist group, Direct Action. Pasqua gives credit to his newly motivated police force, suggesting that the arrest might not have happened under the previous Socialist government, which pardoned many of Direct Action's leaders in l98l.
In another recent coup, police detained eight alleged leaders of a Corsican terrorist group. Pasqua has also taken a firm stand on Basque terrorists, rounding up suspects in the south of France for deportation to Spain.
Many French seem to like Pasqua, praising him with words like ``malin,'' meaning clever, sneaky, and ultimately successful. Pasqua's face is reminiscent of the beloved comic actor Fernandel; his personality, of the ``clever peasant'' type fondly depicted in the works of Marcel Pagnol - both artists are favorites of Pasqua. Born of Corsican parents and raised in the Midi, Pasqua speaks with the vocabulary and the flat accent of France's heartland.
Many also approve of Pasqua's laconic style. On the occasion of the hostage release, Pasqua allowed Chirac to take the credit. In response to questions on the Iran ``deal,'' he said simply, ``one must learn to hold one's tongue and work in secret.''
When France released Wahid Gordji, the Iranian interpreter charged with orchestrating the Paris terrorist bombings of September l986, many people asked for no explanation but simply assumed that the original legal case against Gordji must have been cleverly stacked to give France a bargaining tool with Iran.
In a government formed mainly of polished technocrats, Pasqua is very much the self-made politician. After serving in the French Resistance, he spent the next decade or so working for the Pernod-Ricard liquor company, first as a salesman, where he built a broad network of contacts in bars throughout southern France, contacts which would later serve him well as a political organizer. After rising to the No. 2 position at Ricard, Pasqua left to enter politics with his hero, de Gaulle.
Following de Gaulle's death, he joined Chirac as the best hope for keeping Gaullist ideals alive, helping him organize the powerful Rally for the Republic party. Today Pasqua has key roles in party and government.
``If official government organization reflected true influence,'' political commentator Alan Duhamel has noted, ``Charles Pasqua would be secretary of state.''
Pasqua's successes against terrorism at home also fulfilled one of Chirac's two campaign promises: to promote law and order. (The other, to privatize industry and bring on an era of popular capitalism, was undercut by October's stock-market crash.) Requesting his budget for 1988, Pasqua proudly presented his 1987 record: l58 ``terrorists and activists'' arrested; 315 others expelled. His request may well be approved with enthusiasm.