Swords drawn over a soldier: Philippe Morillon's role in Bosnia, and now his recall, are causing angry debate in France, says Julian Nundy

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WHEN the grey-haired man in the steel-framed glasses and battledress appears on French television live from Sarajevo, he tends to command attention. The likelihood is that he is about to contradict what his political superiors have just said at home.

As officials in Paris maintained that his security was in danger, especially from the Serbs, he said there was no particular new reason for concern. After newspaper reports said he was about to be replaced at the head of the United Nations Protection Force (Unprofor) in Bosnia last weekend, he said he wanted to stay.

In Britain, the arguments may be raging about Baroness Thatcher's call to arm the Bosnian Muslims. In France, the Bosnian war is being fought over the figure of General Philippe Morillon.

No one questions the courage or heroism of the general, who offered himself as a hostage for the safety of the people of Srebrenica, but there are many anonymous insinuations. General Morillon may be seen outside France as a good old-fashioned military hero, but at home the word is that he has become a troublemaker, that he is a soldier suffering from battle fatigue who needs to be replaced, that he has gone beyond his military brief and, perhaps worst of all, that he has been too quick to exploit the media.

Some say it is Francois Mitterrand himself who does not like the general's style and wants him back in France. Others say it is the military chiefs of staff who object to him. And with no one ready to go on record with criticisms, there is little more than innuendo to go on. Even so, as the conservative newspaper Le Figaro said yesterday, the general is rapidly becoming an affair of state.

The speculation surrounding General Morillon has presented Francois Leotard, the Defence minister in France's new conservative government, with an extremely difficult task. He was in Bosnia when Le Monde reported that the general was on the point of being recalled. Speaking from Zagreb, Mr Leotard supported the general but did not rule out a change of command. A few days later he confirmed that General Morillon would 'probably not' still be in Bosnia in May, though he added that the first move would come from the chiefs of staff - that is, not from the politicians.

Asked whether it was true that Mr Mitterrand wanted the general to be recalled, Mr Leotard said: 'Even if it were true I would not say so.' Such is the political delicacy of the decision.

Perhaps the strongest sign of official discontent with General Morillon came in the latest issue of Le Canard Enchane, the satirical and investigative weekly. Reporting on allegedly low morale among the French contingent of UN troops, it said: 'depression is general, except on television', a barb at General Morillon's frequent television appearances.

It said that French troops were particularly unhappy with the vague definition of their mission and the inadequacy of their equipment. It also left the reader to assume that these points were the responsibility of the French command. In fact, both are the responsibility of the UN, which puts limits on the arms its men can deploy. The significance of the article, headlined 'General Morillon's demobilised blue helmets', was its apparent confirmation that there is dissatisfaction with the general in high places. While its sources are covered by anonymity, the Canard relies heavily on civil servants, usually senior civil servants, for its news.

In Le Figaro, the conservative editorial writer Georges Suffert asked: 'Do the French chiefs of staff have real problems with the head of Unprofor? Or is this just a settling of accounts because the general played alone and, especially, used the media without shame? Did the unexpected sunlight shining on the head of this 58-year- old soldier put his many superiors in the shade? There is an even more startling explanation: that his departure was wanted by the Serbian authorities. And now there is a desire to calm these good people.'

On the face of it, there would be nothing wrong in recalling General Morillon now. He has been in former Yugoslavia for a little more than a year, while the normal tour of duty for all other French troops there is six months. But his exploits in Srebrenica virtually guaranteed that his return would be a political issue.

After first being forced to stay with the Muslims of Srebrenica last month and then volunteering to stay to shame the Serbs into easing their bombardment of the town, he cannot be withdrawn easily without it looking like punishment. There is also the fear that bringing him home will send the wrong signal to the warring parties, especially the Serbs.

As public speculation about General Morillon's fate intensified this week, Mr Leotard was obliged to insist that he would be given a new command in keeping with his status. But it was the provincial newspapers, always on the lookout for the cosy and cynical 'parisianisme' they so despise, that were howling loudest, and what they were saying was that if General Morillon was to be brought home at all, it should only be in triumph.

Then on Wednesday, national assembly deputies of the Gaullist RPR, now the biggest party in parliament, responded by publishing a statement of 'unanimous and unreserved tribute' to the general. And even Baroness Thatcher, rarely a favourite in France, has been commended by the media - not for her support for Bosnia's Muslims, but for her tribute to General Morillon's courage and leadership, and her statement that his withdrawal would be a punishment for his style.

The only really unknown factor in General Morillon's imminent return to France is its precise timing. The name of his successor is known: General Michel Zeisser, commander of the First Army in Metz. There are also suggestions that the change of

officer will accompany a change in the definition of the mission. From a negotiating, diplomatic role, it is said, the UN force may be given more muscle and made more interventionist, with orders to step in to try and halt the fighting.

As Le Figaro said: 'It seems natural that the new role should fall to a new man. General Morillon has played the logic of negotiation to its end. Despite the perseverance and the courage of the French commander, this logic has failed because of the Serbs' bad faith. Srebrenica is still isolated and still under bombardment.'

The controversy, it seems, will not stop here. The spotlight has already identified the UN as a further target. Jean-Francois Deniau, a former centrist UDF minister and member of the French Academy who has made travelling to troublespots a personal speciality, said the real lesson of the Morillon affair was to show up 'all the ambiguities of the United Nations and of its system of intervention'.

The UN, he said, 'refused to choose between good and bad'. He added that it behaved 'like a doctor who waits for the patient to be certified dead before going to the bedside'. He also blamed the previous Socialist French government, which had tried to deal with 'the terrible problems of famine, bombardment and 'ethnic cleansing' by purely

media gestures'. The West, 'in reality, decided to do nothing. When

you decide to do nothing, you also decide to pretend to do something. Then the media are very useful.'

For Andre Glucksmann, one of France's 'new philosophers' of the Seventies, who visited Sarajevo last week, the merit of General Morillon was that he brought home the tragedy abroad through his personal courage. 'By going to Srebrenica, he touched ground for a moment. Leaving aside extra-terrestrial programmes and Utopia, he confronted the real drama and took on its misery and uncertainty.'

Georges Suffert at Le Figaro, for his part, wrote that General Morillon had said: 'I only ever expect ingratitude.' It was well put, the writer commented, and went on, in a bitter allusion to the airport at Sarajevo, which is run by French troops, 'That ingratitude is on its way and it will surely land at that airport of last hope.'

(Photograph omitted)