Fighting magistrate takes on Socialists in French poll: Alain Marsaud played a key role in curbing terrorism. Now he is heading for victory this month as a Gaullist candidate in Limoges, writes Julian Nundy

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BEFORE the main course - bison in red wine - the Gaullist candidates took a bow to warm applause. The cheers were kept for Alain Marsaud. It is anything but a household name. If few outside his home city of Limoges know Alain Marsaud, 44, this is because ducking the limelight was once a matter of life or death.

The affable former rugby man has a good chance of pushing the Socialist incumbent in Limoges' first constituency from office for the Gaullist RPR in an expected conservative landslide in French National Assembly elections at the end of this month.

Although it was little known at the time, Mr Marsaud was one of France's most important men at a critical point in recent history. After a series of bombs rocked Paris in 1986, killing 13 and maiming dozens more, Mr Marsaud led the team which rounded up the North African members of the Iranian-backed logistics network who hid and ferried explosives.

Mr Marsaud, a juge d'instruction, or examining magistrate, was the first head of the 14th Section of the prosecutor's office, an anti-terrorism unit co-ordinating work between police and intelligence forces. He and his colleagues lived under permanent guard. Creating the section was his idea: he laid the foundations in an article for Le Monde a few months before the 1986 general election gave the right power in France's first 'cohabitation', conservative government under Francois Mitterrand, the Socialist President.

As the bombings reached their climax in September 1986, Mr Marsaud, who had abandoned the robes of a prosecuting counsel for the lesser glamour of investigative work, was given control. He was often unconventional. To question Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, later sentenced to life imprisonment for organising the 1982 murders of a US and an Israeli diplomat in Paris, he opted for a psychological approach. The Paris bombers were demanding the liberation of Arab prisoners in French jails. Ibrahim Abdallah, a Lebanese, was top of the list.

Mr Marsaud used a legal loophole and effectively re-arrested Ibrahim Abdallah while he was in prison serving a sentence on lesser charges. This way, he could use the four days after arrest when, in terrorist cases, a suspect could not insist on the presence of a lawyer. Mr Marsaud moved the prisoner to a prison where cells were fitted with false walls, floor and ceiling, giving the impression of sound-proofing, and made him wait until 11.30pm on the first day before starting questioning to determine if he knew the bombers. The interrogation drew a blank.

When a bomb killed seven on the Rue de Rennes on 7 September 1986, Ibrahim Abdallah's brothers were the prime suspects. The next day, they invited journalists to their north Lebanese village to deny involvement. A week later, Mr Marsaud drove from the Rue de Rennes to Orly airport. He took a scheduled flight to Larnaca, Cyprus, to see if it was possible to reach north Lebanon the next day. He concluded that it was but that the brothers had not done it.

Mr Marsaud's section included magistrates such as Gilles Boulouque, who committed suicide at the end of 1990 because of a mixture of professional and personal problems, and Jean-Louis Bruguiere, now the top anti-terrorist magistrate.

The Gaullist campaign in Limoges includes 'dinner-debates' at which the party faithful put questions to speakers over a meal. Last week, they came to hear Nicolas Sarkozy, the RPR deputy secretary-general. The caterer, also applauded, was a chef specialising in bison, a new import to farms in the Massif Central where the animals take easily to the cool mountain pastures.

Earlier, the speaker was Mr Bruguiere who broke with usual professional etiquette to speak at a political meeting. Mr Bruguiere warned of 'pre-menace', of a new wave of terrorism threatening Europe. He cited unrest in Muslim areas of the former Soviet Union, volatility in East Europe and fundamentalism in North Africa 'which could transmit contagion to communities present in our country'.

Mr Bruguiere and another magistrate who has spoken at a conservative rally have earned a Justice Ministry rebuke for over-stepping the mark.

Mr Marsaud, however, with a leave of absence from the judiciary, is a free agent. As the second 'cohabitation' looms, Mr Sarkozy told him he was needed in a new role: 'You terrorised the terrorists. Now you will terrorise the Socialists.'

(Photograph omitted)