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French question having their troops in Lebanon

Uncomfortable with American policy in Lebanon, France has begun to question seriously the role of its forces in the country. Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson criticized the United States shelling of rebel forces this week, saying ''it was not the best way'' of settling the conflict. He emphasized that the 2,000 French troops in Beirut and the French forces stationed on the aircraft carrier Foch off the coast would not join the Americans in aiding the Lebanese Army at Souk al Gharb.

The growing worry here is that France is being dragged into an American war to limit Syrian and Palestinian influence in Lebanon. While the French continue to support the government of Amin Gemayel and admit that there is Syrian and Palestinian involvement in the present conflict, they say their troops are stationed in Beirut to protect civilians, not fight the Lebanese Army's battles.

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Until recently, such a peacekeeping mission won wide approval here. Even as French casualties mounted - they now stand at 17 dead and more than 40 wounded - almost everyone in French politics seemed to think that the deaths were a sustainable price for giving each side in Lebanon's tangled ethnic mess time to reach a pact of national reconciliation.

Officially, the French say they still hope just such a negotiated settlement between the Gemayel government and its Muslim opponents can be reached. But as the fighting has escalated in the past week, so have doubts about the success of any negotiations - and for the first time, the wisdom of continued deployment of French troops.

An immediate withdrawal seems out of the question. That would be too much of a blow to French prestige in the Middle East and too great an admission of defeat for domestic consumption, political commentators of all stripes here are saying.

Instead, the government seems to be searching for a face-saving way to limit its engagement. This explains the French reluctance to have their soldiers respond to incoming artillery fire. It also explains, according to commentators, why Defense Minister Charles Hernu suggested this week that a United Nations peacekeeping force replace the four-nation multinational peacekeeping force now in place.

The original public approval of the deployment seems to be waning. More than half those queried in the most recent polls think the troops should not be kept in place.

But the issue still has not become charged enough to put unbearable pressure on President Francois Mitterrand to withdraw. And, as French officials like to point out to Americans, there is no equivalent here to the War Powers Act. Mr. Mitterrand thus has to face the tough decision of troop deployment without the interference of the legislative branch.

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