THIS unseasonably warm fall finds the political temperature in France rising feverishly, with the country transfixed by one of those causes c'el`ebres that grip the French periodically. The issue itself is perfectly banal: Three girls of Arab descent in the town of Creil, near Paris, have insisted on the right to wear the Iranian chador, symbol of Islamic fundamentalism, in their school. The garment in question is an inoffensive, loose-fitting shawl that covers the entire body from head to ankles, but the school principal banned it as a religious symbol of the sort not normally allowed in French state schools. Then the storm began.
The wife of the French president, Mrs. Fran,cois Mitterrand, waded in against the school principal, as did many prominent members of the ruling Socialist Party. Many members of the opposition center-right took the principal's side, worrying that school classrooms could become religious battlegrounds. Finally, the Minister of Education ruled that the girls did indeed have the right to wear the chador in the classroom. Meanwhile, the young girls became media celebrities.
This issue promises to become a dominant one here in the next year, not because people care particularly about chadors, but because the controversy leads to a question that not only France but the whole industrial West will have to face: What is the capacity of Western countries to absorb new immigrants from the third world?
This is an urgent concern in America, as it surveys millions of new Mexican residents; in Germany, which looks uneasily at millions of potential Turkish immigrants, should Ankara join the European Economic Community; in Britain, being pressed to guarantee the right of residence to millions from Hong Kong.
Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing, former French president and a noted economist, gave one answer recently. France, with its 10 percent unemployment, can no longer be considered a ``country of immigration'' as it was in the 1960s, when the economy was booming. But other economists quickly pointed out that labor from third-world countries has helped to keep European exports competitive on world markets.
The far-right National Front has made political capital with a hard-line approach: Crack down on illegal immigrants, issue no more residence permits to non-Europeans not of French descent, send back many current temporary residents.
Indeed, the far right has discovered a political gold mine on this issue, taking support from communist workers who fear for their jobs, as well as traditional middle-class voters who simply dislike the increasing cultural and political activism of Arab immigrants.
The sad element in all this is that once the politicians and the electronic media get hold of an issue, the immediate casualty is dispassionate discourse. Few people bother to point out, for instance, that the great majority of France's African and Arab minorities are working hard to learn French and to assimilate into French society. Or that the majority of younger Arabs were born in this country, often of parents who were given the right to live here because their families served France in its long colonial rule. Or that the foreign population of France today, about 10 percent, is scarcely greater than it was in the 1930s.
What has obscured these realities is the growth of Islamic fundamentalism here. The vast majority of French Arabs, in fact, are from the relatively secular countries of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Indeed, one recent poll taken among France's 3 million Muslims indicated that more than 90 percent of them do not actively practice their religion.
Yet it is a relatively vocal few thousand who have attracted media klieg lights with their calls to kill Salman Rushdie and their support of Iranian-style fundamentalism. The vast majority of France's brown-skinned immigrants will suffer because too many Frenchmen can't distinguish between the people they see screaming ``death to Rushdie'' on TV and the Arab in front of them seeking a job or asking to rent a flat.
One of the glories of France has been its tolerance. American blacks such as Josephine Baker and James Baldwin felt at home here because they found an acceptance not always granted in the US. Thoughtful politicians, mindful of this tradition, have asked for calm and for reflection on the theme of tolerance toward minorities. One hopes they will be heeded, and that the Arab community will move to dampen its own firebrands.