DURING a week spent in France earlier this month, an American visitor was struck, in reading the press and in conversations with friends, by the preoccupation with North Africa and Islamic militancy. Such concerns seem at least equal in intensity with discussions of the forthcoming French presidential election, the health of President Francois Mitterrand and his earlier association with the Vichy regime, and hints of Italian-style corruption in the French body politic.
Concerns over Islamic movements, especially in Algeria, are understandable. Ever since the Algerian military set aside the election victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) at the end of 1991, French citizens have been at risk. The problems were brought starkly home to Paris when the killing of five French officials in Algeria on Aug. 3 was laid at the door of Muslim extremists.
In addition to the protection of French citizens, the French government has other worries. Of the French population of 56 million, 5 million are of North African origin; the infection of this population by militancy could spell serious internal problems for the republic. As a manifestation of this concern, on Sept. 10 the minister of education, Francois Bayrou, announced that women students in French schools could no longer wear head scarves.
With major interest in North Africa, the French fear a spread of Islamic influence in Morocco and Tunisia that would not only threaten Paris's relations with these nations but also bring about a new flood of refugees from across the Mediterranean.
A visitor from the United States can find parallels with Washington's problems with Cuba, Haiti, and Central America. France, like the US in the Caribbean, must react to the crisis in Algeria within the context of its laws, democratic institutions, and public opinion. For example, the expulsion on Aug. 31 to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso of 13 Islamic activists allegedly involved in the killing of French citizens in Algeria has been challenged in the courts. Discord over how tough to be with the Algerians exists within the government. In an interview published in Le Monde on Sept. 6, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe felt it necessary to deny that differences exist between him and Minister of Interior Charles Pasqua over Algerian policy.
Echoes of the US debate over Haiti that preceded the Carter agreement in Port-au-Prince can be found. Torn between security concerns and traditional support for democracy, the French public is divided on whether a return of the FIS to power in Algeria should be encouraged. Different views are expressed on the character of the FIS leadership and on whether its election victory in 1991 was legitimate.
Expressions of support in the US for the return to power of the elected FIS government have also brought reactions in Paris. Mr. Juppe, in the Le Monde interview, acknowledged differences with other European powers and the US on the issue and added, ``One of the tasks we have assigned ourselves is to make the situation a little better understood, since we claim, as far as the Algerian file is concerned, to have a certain experience or expertise.''
Less kind to the US was a comment in Figaro on Sept. 7 by Thierry de Montbrial who, recalling that the US had ``let the shah of Iran fall,'' said Washington wanted to ``play the FIS card'' and see an Islamic republic established in the heart of North Africa. He ascribed American motives to the desire to reinforce the political and economic predominance in the Arab world that the US had gained during the Gulf war.
Although US interests in North Africa may be less crassly motivated than Mr. De Montbrial suggests, they do exist. Washington shares an interest, with Europe, in a peaceful Mediterranean and in the prevention of migrations that might adversely affect NATO security. The US government naturally would like to see a satisfactory outcome of the crisis, and many in the US capital say that must come about with a restoration of the elected government.
In the last analysis, however, Americans and perhaps the French, too, will be bystanders. The Algerians will decide their future.