France is concerned about the stability of Tunisia following the United States bombing of Libya. The strategic North African country is crucial to US as well as French interests in the region. The former French colony is a moderate pro-Western bulwark in an often radical, anti-Western Arab region. It has been a model of third world development, boasting a record of economic and social progress that few nations in Africa or in the Middle East have been able to match.
But today Tunisia faces problems. According to senior French officials who requested anonymity, Tunisia's ailing, octogenarian leader, Habib Bourguiba, is able to work for only an hour or two each day.
President Bourguiba led Tunisia to independence in 1956 and has steered the country ever since. The French fear that he has held on for too long. They say Bourguiba has been ousting supporters of Tunisian Prime Minister Muhammad Mzali, who has been considered the likely successor to Bourguiba.
``Mzali himself hasn't been touched,'' says one French official. ``But his supporters are losing their positions and that is undercutting his power.''
The French are concerned that Mr. Mzali won't have the necessary power base to govern the country when Bourguiba leaves the scene and that political and social instability will result. There is a resurgence of Muslim fundamentalism, and Tunisia suffers from serious economic difficulties that are compounded by a fast-growing population.
Combined with a weak or unresponsive government, a volatile situation could result, these French officials say. The potential for instability was demonstrated in 1984, when government-mandated increases in the price of bread sparked riots.
Neighboring Libya also enters the equation. The French have long suspected Libya's leader, Muammar Qaddafi, of trying to destabilize Tunisia. In 1984, Tunisia accused a Libyan commando of blowing up a pipeline that carries Algerian oil through southern Tunisia.
Last year, Colonel Qaddafi expelled thousands of Tunisian workers employed in Libya. The terrorists who carried out attacks on airports in Rome and Vienna last December held Tunisian passports and are presumed to have been infiltrated among the workers returned from Libya.
The French have long worried about Qaddafi's threat to Tunisia. A top French official says that one reason President Fran,cois Mitterrand met with Qaddafi on the island of Crete in 1984 was to deliver a crisp warning: Don't touch Tunisia.
The French appear willing to back up their words with military force. After the US bombing of Tripoli last month, Libyan threats to launch attacks against Europe concerned the Tunisians as well.
They asked the French for aid and the French Navy mobilized. Officials say a French surveillance plane took off from Bordeaux airport and watched the Libya-Tunisia border until the Navy ships arrived off the Tunisian coast some 24 hours later.
``Call it a preventive measure,'' says one French official. ``Qaddafi got the message.''
But what if the situation is not so clear? The French are concerned that, in the words of one official, ``a mixture of confusion and civil war,'' partly inspired by Qaddafi, could follow Bourguiba's passing. In such a situation, the official says, it would be difficult for the French to intervene.
``It could be a tempting situation for Qaddafi,'' the official concludes, ``and a very difficult one for us.''