Pasqua rides to new height in French public esteem

'WE ALL change with age,' said Charles Pasqua, asked if Carlos' appearance had altered when Sudan handed him over to France on Monday. With age, Mr Pasqua has arguably become France's most powerful man. As French Interior Minister, he has set up his own circle of gung-ho lieutenants, mostly of Corsican origin like himself, an intelligence and negotiation network to keep him informed and strike undercover deals.

A Gaullist since the Second World War when he joined the Resistance, the minister has had a career taking him through the sales division of the Pernod-Ricard drinks firm into government. On the way, he founded an unconventional parallel security service to protect Charles de Gaulle from assassination in the early 1960s.

Mr Pasqua's remark about Carlos's appearance, at a triumphant news conference announcing the end of France's 20-year hunt for Public Enemy Number One, was typical of the bitter-sweet one-liners in which Mr Pasqua excels. This talent has made him France's most desired politician for interviews. When there is good news as there was this week, the minister with the heavy jowls and Fernandel eyes is not slow to oblige and his thick southern accent is heard everywhere.

As his colleagues commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Second World War Allied landings in Provence or were on holiday, Mr Pasqua had taken on the appearance of having been left behind to look after the shop.

For two weeks now, Mr Pasqua has monopolised the media. Before Monday's announcement about Carlos, the reason was controversial. For the nine previous days, an extraordinary operation to seek out Islamic terrorist sympathisers had been set up by the police under his command.

Responding to the assassination of five Frenchmen, all employed at the embassy in Algiers, two weeks ago, Mr Pasqua detained 17 Algerians resident in France and said to be close to Algeria's banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Then, as fundamentalist groups threatened reprisals, Mr Pasqua ordered police checks on the streets to nip any terrorist operations in the bud. By yesterday, a total of 25,000 people, all of obvious immigrant origin, had had their papers checked. Six people have been charged with having links to terrorist networks and the number of Algerians held at Folembray barracks north-east of Paris has grown to 25.

For Mr Pasqua's detractors, the operation was seen as a vote-catching harassment of immigrants in the name of law and order. Presumably with this in mind, the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, whose refined, cautious and even hesitant approach is the antithesis of Mr Pasqua's, waited over a week before commenting on Mr Pasqua's police operation. When it became clear that it was popular, Mr Balladur ventured that Mr Pasqua had not only his 'full agreement' but his 'full support'.

The two men represent the opposite poles in the Gaullist RPR party: Mr Balladur is the highly educated French administrator with a career in public service; Mr Pasqua, first elected to parliament in 1968, represents the popular strain of Gaullism. When France was threatened with civil war as De Gaulle promised Algeria its independence, Mr Pasqua demonstrated his loyalty to the movement's creator by setting up the Service d'Action Civique, a strong- arm security force noted for violent methods.

He was first appointed interior minister under Jacques Chirac in 1986. Then, bypassing the Foreign Ministry, Jean-Charles Marchiani, Mr Pasqua's main unofficial negotiator, worked to gain the release of French hostages in Lebanon. An exchange for prisoners in France and the settlement of debts permitted the return of the last hostages just before the presidential election of May 1988 which Mr Chirac lost narrowly to Francois Mitterrand. Mr Marchiani, now dealing with Algerian fundamentalism and still talking to Iran, is back in Mr Pasqua's entourage. The negotiations with Sudan leading to the extradition of Carlos again look like an Interior Ministry-led effort, bypassing traditional methods.

Next April and May, France has its presidential election and Mr Chirac is almost certain to stand again. There could be another Gaullist contender: Mr Balladur. Mr Pasqua has tended to support Mr Chirac over Mr Balladur, but has not declared himself finally for either. Now riding high in public esteem, Mr Pasqua is plainly the Gaullists' main power-broker and if there is to be a contest between Mr Balladur and Mr Chirac, his choice could be decisive.

(Photograph omitted)

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