THE hijacking of an Air France airliner on a runway in Algiers last weekend did what two months of intensified violence had failed to do - put Algeria's civil conflict back on the front pages in France.
The incident challenges both the Algerian government - which, despite a two-month campaign to crush the Islamist insurgency, failed to protect the airport - and France's policy to support that government.
The hijackers seized the Airbus and 172 passengers and crew members Saturday. Algerian news reports say they called for the release of two leaders of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and demanded to leave Algeria.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and Interior Minister Charles Pasqua intervened with their counterparts in the Algerian government to ``call their attention to the seriousness of the ultimatum'' to kill French hostages. At presstime, in an apparent rescue attempt, French elite forces stormed the plane. They now have control of the plane, but several people were killed, including the hijackers.
For Ali, an Algerian who took the earlier Air France morning flight out of Algiers, the message of the hijackers is clear: ``They want to undermine relations between France and Algeria.''
This impression Foreign Minister Juppe hastened to correct: ``I don't think it's wise to envisage the rupture of ties between France and Algeria, because we have a long history, geography, as well as longstanding interests in common.''
For 130 years of colonial history, France viewed Algeria as a ``safety valve'' for its own social woes: Many of France's unemployed, for example, emigrated to start a new life in French Algeria. Today, with 50 percent of the Algerian population under the age of 20, with little hope for employment, housing, or a letup in violence, many French fear that their own country will see a flood of immigrants and take on Algeria's woes.
* Last month, French police rounded up 80 Algerians around Paris suspected of trafficking arms and false identifications to Islamic militants in Algeria.
* Two weeks ago, a communique circulating under the name of a leader of the FIS claimed that ``After Jan 1, 1995, suicide attacks will be carried out against diplomatic missions and French interests throughout the Arab world.''
* Unprecedented levels of gang violence in the impoverished French suburbs are linked to ``rage'' of displaced, disaffected second- and third-generation Algerians.
``The main impact of the violence in Algeria in France is to encourage an obsession with security,'' says Dominique Moisi of the French Institute of International Relations. ``The French are puzzled by the Algerian quagmire. There is a feeling that there is very little we can do to affect events there. So we try to limit the impact of immigration, terrorism, fundamentalism reaching significant segments of the Algerian population in France.
``Toward that end, there is not one French policy toward Algeria, but many,'' she adds. The foreign ministry is most concerned with France's image in the Middle East; the Interior Ministry, with domestic security.
Since Algeria's military regime canceled elections in 1992, sparking an Islamic-backed insurgency, France has lent moral support to the government, especially with European and international lenders. Last April, Algeria signed a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund, and a $170 million support program from the European Union kicks in this month - both with considerable behind-the-scenes support from the French.
In describing this policy, the Foreign Ministry emphasizes France's search for a political dialogue within Algeria.
``We insisted that Algeria start economic reforms,'' Juppe said recently. ``Two years ago, the government hadn't devalued the dinar, had no agreement with the International Monetary Fund, and had yet to launch social reforms. A year ago, all that changed. The dinar has found its rates of exchange, internal social reforms were taken, there has been a resumption of growth to 2 percent [annual].''
Interior Minister Pasqua first sounded the alarm that Algeria was threatening France's domestic security. ``France can't become the new frontier for all the woes of the world,'' he told French deputies last year on the eve of voting for a new law to restrict immigration. ``France is a country that must maintain mastery of her own identity.''
The Interior Ministry has been consistently linked with reports in the French press of secret arms shipments to the Algerian government. Two weeks ago, for example, the weekly Paris-based Le Point reported that the Interior Ministry was supplying Algeria with night-sight weapons and military transport vehicles. The Interior Ministry declined comment.