AT the edge of an apprehensive crowd watching the rescue effort after Tuesday's subway bombing in Paris, a small scuffle broke out.
''You're an African. Why don't you return to your country!'' an angry white woman shouted at a young black man. A policeman managing the crowd appeared to side with the woman. Shouting intensified, the crowd took up sides, and a national security police squad moved in. The woman was questioned briefly on the sidelines and released; the young man, surrounded by security police, was led across the river, past TV cameras, and questioned at length.
For those who lingered at the site for hours after the bombing, the important question was not terrorists, but a fear that their city was becoming even more racially charged.
The black man ''should have better managed his situation,'' says a black woman. ''In Paris, Africans have to avoid situations like this.''
''It was racist to bring him in front of the cameras,'' says another black woman. ''People could think he was connected with the bombing.''
As in the United States after the Oklahoma City bombing, here, too, the early presumptions of guilt fell on foreigners. At press time, no group had claimed responsibility for the bombing, which resulted in seven deaths and scores of injuries. But French observers were quick to come up with a long list of suspects.
These included Algeria's Armed Islamic Group, still smarting from France's response to the group's thwarted hijacking of a French airliner in December; Serb groups, angered by France's recent calls for a tougher military response in Bosnia; the Iranian-backed Hizbullah, linked to a previous wave of terrorist bombings in Paris in 1986; the Kurdish separatist group PKK; Palestinian militants; Corsican separatists; as well as environmentalists protesting France's decision to revive nuclear testing in the South Pacific.
Environmentalists took strong exception to media commentary that included them in the list of terrorist prospects. A Page 1 commentary in the conservative daily Le Figaro suggested that ''the announcement of a revival of French nuclear tests in the Pacific has reawakened the hatred of some strange ecologists who have a special hatred for our country....'' TF 1, the nation's most watched television channel, explicitly listed the environmental group Greenpeace as a possible suspect.
''Such charges are disinformation and just an attempt to weaken us,'' says Penelope Komites, spokesman for Greenpeace France, which leads opposition to French nuclear testing.
In recent weeks France has been gearing up for terrorist activity. One of the first priorities of the new conservative government was to identify terrorist threats in Paris, according to Roland Jacquard, president of the Paris-based Terrorism Observatory. ''Most of the world's terrorist groups at one time or another passed through Yugoslavia when it was a united state, including Carlos the Jackal and Abu Nidal,'' he says. But a more likely source of the attack is Algerian Islamic groups, he says.
Since the early 1960s, Paris has been a center for political activity in the Arab world. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini launched his revolution from Paris, and former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, who served under the Shah, was assassinated here in 1981. A wave of terrorist bombings in Paris in 1986 was directed by the Committee for Solidarity with Arab Political Prisoners, a group linked to pro-Iranian Hizbullah groups in Lebanon.
''Paris has conducted a very aggressive and visible foreign policy in the Arab world and in Bosnia,'' says Bruce Hoffmann of St. Andrews University Center for Terrorism. ''In 1986, it seemed terrorism was designed to send a message. But in today's very ambiguous world of terrorist violence, actions are now designed not to send a message but to create fear, to kill innocent people.
''One of the trends in terrorism recently is not to claim credit,'' he adds. ''If these groups can present themselves as enigmatic and omnipresent, the psychological impact is all the more intense.''
Yesterday, increased security measures were already in evidence in the capital. Subway announcements told passengers to prepare to open bags and packages to any police asking to look inside.
''I'm afraid this is only the beginning,'' says Hakim, a French citizen of Algerian origin. ''We're getting involved in Bosnia, in nuclear tests; it's all a big mess. And when they [the police] look for people to stop, it's my face and my name they're going to notice.''
Fear of foreigners figured in recent French presidential and municipal elections. Extreme right-wing candidate Jean Marie Le Pen won a record 15 percent of the vote running on an antiforeigner platform.