France and Islam: a double distance: Algerian crisis raises fears of violence crossing the Mediterranean

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AT THE funeral of five French embassy employees gunned down by Islamic fundamentalists in Algiers 10 days ago, a bereaved father told Edouard Balladur it was time for France to leave Algeria entirely. In reply, the Gaullist Prime Minister ominously described Algeria as 'a major problem which is ahead of us'.

With each new twist of the Algerian crisis, the worst-case scenario of the incipient civil war in the former North African colony eventually spilling over into the ex-metropolis seems to come closer.

As next May's election to find a successor to Francois Mitterrand approaches, Algeria could prove as thorny a problem for the next French president as Islamic Iran was for the US of Jimmy Carter. If Mr Carter had to deal with the humiliation of a far-off country holding some 50 diplomats hostage, France, even without the focus of such an obvious single crisis so far, faces a potentially more complex package and one that threatens its domestic peace.

Algeria, after all, is just an hour's flight across the Mediterranean from Marseilles. Islam is France's second religion with 4 million adherents, most of them originating from North Africa. If the domino theory prevails, fundamentalist fever would spread to Morocco and Tunisia from Algeria.

If fundamentalists finally did set up an Islamic regime, an exodus of those fearing the new order would undoubtedly bring hundreds of thousands of refugees to French shores, many of them allowed automatic entry by virtue of French nationality. The authorities then fear vendettas with a cycle of revenge killings and hostage-taking within the Muslim community.

After a series of attacks on foreigners, particularly Frenchmen, in Algeria over the past year, the latest killings - three gendarmes posted to guard the Algiers embassy and two consular officials - have sparked off the most spectacular reaction inside France so far.

Seventeen suspected fundamentalist sympathisersfrom the Algerian community in France were packed off to a makeshift detention centre in a disused barracks at Folembray, north- east of Paris. Most were known supporters of Algeria's banned Islamic Salvation Front, the FIS. By yesterday, their numbers had grown to 23 and the Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, made it clear they could be released only if they found another country to give them asylum.

The AIS - the Islamic Salvation Army, military wing of the FIS - threatened to bring its armed struggle to French soil if France did not free the detainees. Mr Pasqua responded by ordering police to seek out Islamic militants, an operation that inevitably meant street-level checks of people of obvious immigrant origin. The even more extreme GIA, or Armed Islamic Group, added its voice to threaten new attacks on French nationals and property inside Algeria.

For Islamic activists and some French analysts, the move to neutralise fundamentalists in France implied the greatest official support so far for the Algerian military regime, evoking memories of American backing for the doomed Shah of Iran.

A centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) senator, Jean-Francois Deniau, one of France's most respected voices in foreign affairs, cautioned that what was needed was a 'double distance' - from a government in Algiers known for its corruption and from militants with no love for the former colonial power.

'We can not support a government which we tax with being corrupt and inefficient,' he said. 'The Algerian government must show that it wants to go towards more justice and democracy. We have to observe the same distance from the FIS which, beyond its religious import, is above all a power struggling against another power.'

Above all, Mr Deniau added, the FIS had to realise 'that it will not win its battle of Algiers in France, that it is out of the question that our territory serve as a base'. 'Operation Chrysanthemum' to head off Islamic violence in France began last November after three French consular employees were kidnapped and then released by an Algerian police commando.

Over the past week, with the checking of cars, pedestrians and passengers on the Metro, the latest phase turned up a handful of Islamic militants and links to arms trafficking to rebels in Algeria but nothing to suggest any terrorist attacks being prepared on French soil.

Mr Pasqua was also Interior Minister in 1986 when a devastating series of bombings killed 13 people and maimed many more in Paris in a campaign to force France to release Arab and Iranian prisoners held in French jails on terrorist charges. That network was only fully dismantled - revealing arms caches buried in the forest of Fontainebleau and an extensive chain of helpers with no record of previous trouble- making - when one of its members turned himself in to the French counter-espionage service. After plastic surgery and a change of identity, the informer now lives in the US.

What Mr Pasqua must dread is a repeat performance of 1986. The director of the main Paris mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, points out that the earlier campaign was organised and carried out by a foreign country - Iran. Without the access to diplomatic channels and state arms supplies, the Algerian militants would not be expected to create the same level of activity.

There is evidence, however, of Algerian Islamists collaborating with other groups and police sources said that suspects picked up in Perpignan two weeks ago had links to the Palestinian fundamentalist Hamas. They had reportedly been preparing a joint operation against an Israeli target in Spain.

There are increasingly suggestions that France has been at pains to keep Iran sweet to prevent a recurrence of terrorism on its territory.

(Photograph omitted)