Kingmaker or leader in waiting?: Carlos's captor has his eyes on a bigger prize

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The Independent Online
THE FEAST of the Assumption holiday, in the middle of August, is traditionally the quietest day in the French calendar. Last Monday, Charles Pasqua turned it into a day of sensation.

His announcement that the terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, alias 'Carlos', was in custody in France electrified the country. Like the extradition of Klaus Barbie in 1983, or the shooting in a Paris street in 1979 of the elusive gangster Jacques Mesrine, it was a classic coup de theatre by the French authorities.

Its most striking effect has been an increase in the political importance of the Interior Minister. Mr Pasqua is the most talked-about politician in the country, and now everybody wants to know how he will use his influence in the run-up to the French presidential election next spring.

Will he support Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister and front-runner, or will he back Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris and RPR leader? Or, a possibility he has never ruled out, might Charles Pasqua seek the Gaullist nomination for himself?

Mr Pasqua, 67, is a man who inspires strong emotions. His detractors accuse him of flirting with the far right, of having an undemocratic approach to policing the country, a cavalier attitude to civil liberties and hostility towards immigrants and minorities.

His supporters insist he is merely a forthright man in touch with the grass roots, that he represents the true France and that he hides a heart of gold under the bluff exterior.

Whatever his heart is made of, there is no denying his common touch and his winning ways. A southerner who combines a quick wit with a deep, unmistakable regional growl, he still deploys all the wiles he once needed when he was chief salesman for Ricard, makers of pastis.

Even Francois Mitterrand, from the other side of the political divide, privately expresses affection for this man he once likened to 'a sad Fernandel'. And Mr Pasqua certainly bears some physical resemblance to Fernandel, the much-loved comic actor of the 1940s and 1950s.

But there is no denying his darker side. The news of the capture of Carlos overshadowed events which had kept Mr Pasqua in the heat of controversy for the previous 10 days: the identity checks on immigrants to seek out supporters of Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria.

That operation, in which up to 3,000 people are being stopped every day, is upsetting the North African community and evoking chilling memories of the days of the 1954-62 Algerian war, when police pulled no punches in the hunt for Algerian separatists.

Mr Pasqua's own connections with law and order go back almost that far. The son of a resistance hero, he chose his path in life on the day when, deciding to supplement his meagre earnings in the wine trade, he put a brass plate on his door saying: 'Charles Pasqua, private detective, surveillance, enquiries, protection of VIPs, discretion guaranteed.'

Before long he was helping to run the security apparatus of Charles de Gaulle's party, and later, after the Algerian war, he became deputy head of the Service d'Action Civique (SAC), a force with no legal status set up to protect de Gaulle against the many threats on his life. Often relying on ties with the underworld, SAC gained a lasting notoriety as ruthless vigilantes.

The SAC cloud hung over Mr Pasqua for years, until a parliamentary inquiry in the 1980s cleared him of any involvement in the SAC's worst excesses. By then he was a member of the National Assembly, acquiring his reputation for blunt talk and political ruthlessness.

When Jacques Chirac made him Interior Minister in 1986, eyebrows rose, even on the right. His manner, and his record, were thought to send dangerous signals. In December of that year, when police under his authority beat and killed a North African boy after students occupied the Sorbonne, critics blamed the gung- ho Pasqua leadership style.

In the same year came the first demonstrations of his taste for skulduggery and his belief that ends are more important than means. A group demanding the release of Middle Eastern prisoners in French jails waged a bombing campaign in Paris, but while Mr Pasqua declared a policy of no concessions to terrorism, his officials were busy negotiating for the release of French hostages in Lebanon.

Later, when the Iranian embassy in Paris refused to hand over an employee wanted for questioning about the bombings, Mr Pasqua ordered a siege of the building which lasted four months. The impasse was broken when the employee emerged for a brief interview with an examining magistrate and was then allowed to go free.

There were cries of 'deal', and a year later it seemed the debt was called in, when France's last remaining hostages in Lebanon were released just as Mr Chirac was bidding for the presidency. In the event, Mr Mitterrand was re-elected, a new Socialist government was formed, and both Mr Chirac and Mr Pasqua found themselves in opposition.

The return of the right last year brought Mr Pasqua back to the Interior Ministry, to the delight of the French police and security services. Soon afterwards, a police officer shot dead a young African immigrant in a Paris police station. That and other instances of police violence were attributed to hotheads in the police imagining that with their champion back in the Interior Ministry they could use tougher methods. Mr Pasqua responded with heavy disciplinary measures.

But his message is unchanged. Tough on crime and tough on the perceived enemies of France, he has become a pillar of right-wing government, an apparently indispensable element in the chemical build-up of a conservative Cabinet.

Today his main security worry comes from Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria. He fears that violence there could spill over into the Algerian community in France.

It was after five employees of the French embassy in Algiers were shot dead at the beginning of this month that he put two dozen allegedly known fundamentalist sympathisers in detention in a disused barracks and, as fundamentalist groups threatened reprisals, instituted the identity checks for immigrants which have now become a fact of life in Paris and other big cities.

At the same time, the talk of secret international deal- making continues. Last year, two Iranians held in France and wanted by Switzerland to face terrorism charges were suddenly set free. When the Swiss complained, Mr Pasqua said mysteriously that 'reasons of state' had prevailed.

So when he insisted there was no quid pro quo to gain Sudan's help in capturing Carlos, few were ready to believe him. Does this man want to be president? He is not saying.

(Photograph omitted)