The Guest of France Whom No One Wanted


February 06, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Paris -- The most interesting aspect of the terrorist George Habash's Paris adventure last week was the eagerness of Western governments to have nothing to do with this supposedly most-wanted of international terrorists. Sic transit ignominia mundi.

Certainly the French did not want him, once they had discovered that they did have him, and they sent him away with haste and embarrassment. But Israel did not want him either.

When it became known that Mr. Habash was in Paris for medical treatment, Israel's embassy spoke of Israel's issuing an international warrant for his arrest. It somehow never got around to it. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said during the weekend that the Palestinian leader's visit to France was a ''negligible'' incident, ''without importance.''

The Washington Post denounced ''the malingering Socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand'' for having ''caved to the Arabs, doing ''tremendous damage'' to the struggle against terrorism, but the State Department was not listening. It made known that no charges were outstanding against Mr. Habash in the U.S., hence his extradition would not be requested. The neutral Swiss, home of the Red Cross, when asked to take him off France's hands, said no thank you.

An encumbering guest indeed. Why, is obvious. France, the U.S. and Switzerland do profitable business with Arab countries. There currently is a faint hope for peace in the Middle East. If France, the U.S. or Switzerland put Mr. Habash on trial, that hope would grow more faint or disappear.

Israel's difficulties with the United States would have been multiplied by demanding and trying Mr. Habash, even if France had been willing to hand him over. The United States' Gulf War reconciliation with the Arabs would be undermined by reopening the Palestinian terrorism issue.

All of this is morally unattractive but the stuff of international life. Why do people think France let in Mr. Habash in the first place, if not with some idea of advancing the peace process?

But the Mitterrand government will pay for this gaffe. What the truth of the affair may have been makes no difference. The Paris public and political class alike hold President Francois Mitterrand and his collaborators responsible for having permitted Mr. Habash to come and then blaming civil servants, sparing the politicians who are close personally to the president.

Few can believe that veteran officials would have admitted Mr. Habash without authority from above. Prime Minister Edith Cresson, who claims she learned of Mr. Habash's arrival from the television news, is said to have assumed from the elaborate airport security that the affair had been organized by the president's office behind her back.

President Mitterrand denies this. It may possibly have been done in his name without his having been informed. However, France has cabinet government and ministers are responsible for what their ministries do. By accusing and dismissing senior civil servants, the government is seen by opposition politicians and some supporters as having undermined the constitutional functioning of the Fifth Republic.

The most prominent Socialist candidate to Mr. Mitterrand's succession, former Prime Minister Michel Rocard, said on Sunday that the foreign and interior ministers ''must pay,'' contradicting the president.

The Mitterrand government has been disintegrating for some time, wasted by the wear and tear of power and its own ideological and intellectual exhaustion. The controversy in Paris bears less on whether the Socialists will be ousted in the next scheduled elections than on whether elections should be brought forward.

Opposition leaders are demanding immediate legislative elections. Sentiment in Socialist circles favors dismissal of Madame Cresson and appointment of a new prime minister.

The scandal has laid plain the problem here of governments which outstay their time. It was Britain's problem a little more than a year ago, and thus was Margaret Thatcher ''betrayed'' by her fellow Conservatives and ejected from power. The Socialist Party does not have that option with respect to Mr. Mitterrand.

There is also a problem in France which a change of government will not settle. It is what George Bush so memorably called ''the vision thing.'' The democratic left historically has been concerned with class power, wealth redistribution, welfare, social solidarity, etc.

In Western Europe today, nearly all of that has been settled as well as it is likely to be, so far as public policy is concerned. France is the last to arrive at this point.

A combination of circumstances kept the postwar French left from power until Mr. Mitterrand's election to the presidency in 1981. Now France's social and economic policies are all but indistinguishable from those of the rest of continental Western Europe. A vision problem does exist: of what to do next. But it exists on the right as well as the left -- and not only in France.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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