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France takes an active Mideast role and gets a sharp response

French interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict has grown steadily since Francois Mitterrand came to power in May. But now France' government is beginning to feel pressure from radical Arabs and Israel for pursuing a new, more active political role in the Middle East.

The Sept. 4 assassination in Lebanon of Ambassador Louis Delamare occurred just after a spurt of French diplomatic activity in Lebanon. Many observers in Beirut and Paris charge the assassination was carried out by a terrorist squad sanctioned by Syria.

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So far, however, there is little evidence to support this allegation: no one has been apprehended; a hitherto unknown group called the Lebanese Red Brigades claimed credit.

Any of a dozen militias in Lebanon might have been responsible. But the large Syrian troop presence in Lebanon -- especially in the area in which the assassination occurred -- makes many argue that the deed could not have been done without Syrian knowledge.

Syria was also believed to be connected with the Aug. 29 attack on a synagogue in Vienna as well as an earlier attempt to smuggle weapons into Austria. The reason for Syrian involvement, various sources in Lebanon say (though not publicly due to the vindictive record of the Syrian regime against critics), is that Syria's Hafez Assad is trying to prevent broader contacts between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the West, such as French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson's meeting with PLO chief Yasser Arafat in Beirut Aug. 30.

The Phalangists, who fought the Syrians earlier this year and demand their withdrawal from Lebanon, enjoy much better contacts with the Mitterrand government than they did with the government of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, a Phalangist official told the Monitor.

"The French," says the Phalange official, "are definitely more concerned about Lebanon. They are acting very much in the interest of our country as a whole."

The Mitterrand government position on Lebanon incorporates the view that the Palestinian problem must be solved in order to bring peace back to the one-time French protectorate. But French contacts with the PLO to this end are upsetting Israel, which is also vying for Mitterrand's favor. Israeli officials have been pleased, however, that Mr. Cheysson continues to say that the PLO is not the sole representative of the 3.8 million Palestinians.

Mr. Mitterrand is expected to meet with Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Israel in January, one of a series of meetings occurring between the French President and key Mideast leaders. On Sept. 8, he received Saudi Crown Prince Fahd. On Sept. 26, Messrs. Mitterrand and Cheysson visit Riyadh.

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Mr. Mitterrand has surprised many Arabs by his quick, evenhanded moves in the region. Only one day after his investiture, Mr. Mitterrand met with all Arab ambassadors in Paris and pledged that the large Arab banking industry in France would be untouched by his nationalization plans.

Politically, the Mitterrand government is much more closely aligned with US policy than was the Giscard government. Mr. Cheysson has come down squarely on the side of Camp David. The Israeli-destroyed nuclear reactor in Iraq will be rebuilt but with more safeguards to prevent bomb development than the one begun during the Giscard regime.

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