LEADING ARTICLE: Algerian violence and French votes

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The seizure of the Air France plane at Algiers airport and its bloody aftermath was a tragic event that has demonstrated for all to see the ruthlessness of the civil war in Algeria.

Two details of this episode are remarkable. In their original demands the terrorists asked for the release from detention of certain leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) who are usually considered rather more moderate than themselves; then, as soon as the plane was transferred to Marseilles, the hijackers demanded the right to hold a press conference. However ill-judged and terrible the hijacking was, it seems to have been conceived as a way of breaking the deadlock in Algeria.

General Zeroual's government cannot achieve victory over the Islamic opposition in spite of his advanced weaponry and in spite of his ability to kill a thousand Islamists a month. Equally, the Islamic fighting groups cannot defeat the government in spiteof their ability to control particular areas, some of them of considerable size. If this impasse continues, the world's 10th-largest country will destroy itself.

Clearly, France is the most concerned and the most implicated in these events. Having a large Muslim population, much of it of Algerian origin, it is not surprising that Islamic fundamentalists have a significant presence within France. They enjoy influence among the young in the suburban ghettos, they encourage young girls to create disturbances by wearing the veil at school; and they produce violent propaganda. The French police have found many examples of them stocking arms. Should the war continue in Algeria, then the fundamentalist threat to civil peace in France can only grow more acute.

So far the government in Paris has restricted its activity to providing economic aid to Algeria and to expressing the desire that the Algerian government should come to an agreement with the moderate Islamic movement and proceed eventually to democratic elections. Perhaps something more is now required.

The French government should take the initiative. It could use the influence of the rector of the Paris mosque and the imam of the 18th arrondissement. It could also exploit its contacts with Berber leaders and the FIS representatives in Germany. With the co-operation of Morocco and Tunisia, the French government might be able to help to bring about a reconciliation between government and moderates.

But at present this seems to be unlikely. The Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, is determined to defeat the fundamentalist challenge rather than to negotiate with it. This is a popular policy and will be made even more so by yesterday's events. In an election year, what is popular is also what is likely to prevail.

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