THE increasingly violent civil conflict in Algeria has come perilously close to France in recent weeks, prodding the conservative Paris government to move forcefully against radical Islamic sympathizers in France. Officials are trying to head off terrorist acts similar to the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York last February.
In a pre-dawn raid across the country Nov. 9, police arrested 88 people suspected of having links to the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which is outlawed in Algeria and whose objective is to create an Islamic republic there based on the model of Iran.
Only two suspects remain behind bars, and a third is under house arrest. But the government claimed the raids were a success because officials seized large numbers of documents and false identity papers that could substantiate suspicions about an emerging network of FIS sympathizers allegedly operating inside France.
The main concern in the French government is that an Islamic republic at Europe's doorstep could lead to the mass exodus of hundreds-of-thousands of middle-class Algerians to France at a time of economic recession, high unemployment, and rising xenophobia. Islamic extremists in Algeria have vowed to increase their campaign of violence starting Dec. 1, targeting mostly foreigners. But thousands of people have fled the country, including Algerians.
The immediate problem facing the French government, however, is to prevent extremists from using the police crackdown as an argument for recruiting alienated and unemployed first-generation French Muslim youths to their cause.
The Nov. 9 operation in Paris and a number of provincial cities, including Marseille and Lyon, came just days after Interior Minister Charles Pasqua warned FIS members living in France to refrain from engaging in ``political activities on our territory that run counter to the interests of the French government.''
While the raids turned up documents linking several of those arrested to the murder last September of two French surveyors working in Algeria and the kidnapping of three French consular officers in Algiers, the real purpose of the operation was to send an unequivocal message that Paris would not wait for a World Trade Center-style bombing before moving against those trying to overthrow the Algerian government.
``We had proof that Islamic elements that were neither infiltrated nor manipulated were implied in the assassination of two of our compatriots and in the kidnapping of three of our consular agents,'' Mr. Pasqua told the newspaper Le Monde. ``It was our duty to find out whether they had accomplices in France.''
Among the documents seized by police was a copy of a message given to Michele Thevenot, one of three kidnapped French consular officers, just before her release Nov. 1.
The letter allegedly warned all foreigners to leave Algeria within a month, and many French citizens took advantage of the mid-term school vacation to do just that. Police said they also found a copy of a statement signed by the Supreme Council of the Islamic Armed Forces taking credit for the kidnapping.
``It is not for fear of the Algerian people that Spaniards or Frenchmen should leave the country, but for moral reasons,'' Rabah Kebir, the FIS spokesman exiled in Germany said in a recent newspaper interview. ``I do not want their presence to help the dictatorship against the Algerian people.''
The seized documents were found in the apartment of Moussa Kraouche, spokesman for the Algerian Fraternity in France, which is believed to represent the FIS here. Mr. Kraouche remains behind bars on charges of associating with a terrorist group. Also jailed was Abdelhak Boudjaadar, another leading member of the Fraternity who police said had a list of explosives in his home as well as material to construct a bomb. A third man, Lardi Beddiaf, who turned himself in to the police following the raid, was placed under house arrest.
The kidnapping and later release of the French consular officers brought the growing Algerian conflict home to France. Paris has been increasingly wary of its former colony since January 1992, when the military canceled the second round of legislative elections that would have given the FIS a clear parliamentary majority.
Radical Islamists have assassinated more than a dozen Algerian intellectuals and journalists in recent months and have categorically rejected efforts by Algerian authorities to engage in a dialogue.