JO GOLDENBERG'S restaurant is invariably packed, even during the lazy month of August. The foremost kosher restaurant in the picturesque Jewish quarter of Paris, Goldenberg's attracts tourists and locals, businessmen and immigrant workers, the curious and the hungry. And so it was a few Mondays ago at 1:15 p.m.: a tight squeeze by the bar, a line at the deli counter, animated conversation around the tables. Later, someone was to call it a perfect setting for a massacre.
First the terrorists threw a grenade, then they followed it inside, methodically firing their Polish-made machine guns. As the carnage began, a waitress was coming down the stairs, tray in hand. "I thought a bomb had gone off," she said. "There were people, chairs, blood everywhere. Then one of them saw me and began to chase me, shooting. I ran down the hall, him following, until I made it to a window. Somehow, I got out." Calmly, the killers finished their business and departed in a white car. Six were dead, 22 injured.
The slaughter on the Rue des Roisiers was but one of the recent rash of terrorist attacks that have plagued France, and most particularly its Jews. With the war raging in Lebanon and the local Jewish community furious at what it perceives to be pro-PLO posturing by the government and the French press disparaging Israel, tempers were running short.
So when Minister of the Interior Gaston Deferre arrived at Goldenberg's a short while after the attack, a mob gathered outside appeared intent on a lynching. "Mitterrand traitor!" "Mitterrand assassin!" they yelled at the President's representative as the police struggled to maintain control. Deferre took in the scene, said nothing, and quickly left.
The panic grew as two bombs exploded the following day, one targeted at a Jewish-run business, the other at the Iraqi embassy. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin called on French Jews to "protect yourselves if your government cannot." The situation was getting out of hand.
Mitterrand, then vacationing in central France, had to act. He had promised during his 1980 campaign that he would be "The Tranquil Force" and wanted to reassure his countrymen they would be protected. At the same time, he felt he had to clarify French intentions in Lebanon. Television was his chosen method.
By all accounts, his was a masterful performance. Like his predecessors d'Estaing, Pompidou and deGaulle, Mitterrand can be a captivating, often literary speaker. As he began to spell out the French role in the Lebanese crisis, the President was clearly at his best.
"Presence, balance, peace," said Mitterrand, the first French head of state to visit Israel. "Those are the same words I spoke to the Knesset in April...And I say to you now. France's Arab policy will never be anti-Israel, just as France's Israeli policy will never be anti-Arab." Mitterrand called once again for a homeland for the Palestinians. "But the PLO must, above all else, recognize the right of Israel to exist within secure borders, in peace."
The President then moved on to terrorism. The recent incidents, he claimed, were not proof of a latent French anti-Semitism. Instead, radical elements sabotaging France's role in mediating the Lebanese confrontation, were to blame. After announcing a series of security provisions, including police reinforcements and the creation of a secretary of state for security. Mitterrand assumed a grave, but confident expression. "There will come a day when terrorism will fall under our blows. With courage and perseverence, we shall win this fight."
NOW NEARLY A MONTH AFTER the attack on Goldenberg's, it is possible to look back on events more dispassionately. Mitterrand's "radical elements" theory seems to hold water. Police have since dug up evidence linking the restaurant assassins to a PLO splinter group even more extreme in its demands than PLO leader Yassin Arafat. Simone Weil, a former minister and Auschwitz survivor has explained. "I truly do not believe the French are anti-Semitic. There are people in the world trying to destabilize our democracies. In France, Jews are the most obvious target."
To many, France seems to be playing the "oil card" in the Middle East, to the detriment of the Jews. The French must import 75 percent of their energy, so self-interest often supersedes morality, and the French often come across as avidly anti-Israel.
It's largely an unfair image, however. Mitterrand is a devoted friend of Israel's as his historic trip to Jerusalem in April and his unwavering support for the Jewish state since 1948 attest. He has stuck to those stands in spite of the terrorism of the last few months. But the President, on the other hand, also believes a Palestinian homeland is both right and necessary. One of his advisors explains: "In the long run, killing off the PLO is not going to help Israel. There will always be a Palestinian movement, each day, more and more frustrated. Better to maintain the PLO as a strictly political force with some sense of honor intact. Then, hopefully, they will be more reasonable." It's a debatable position, but it's certainly borne of good faith and realism, not anti-Semitism.
The government here is sure there is a solid link between the Goldenberg's massacre and recent French diplomatic activism in the Middle East that appears to be strongly pro-Israel. But Mitterrand will not back down. "We must struggle for peace abroad just as we must fight terrorism at home. We will not--we cannot--give in." But until then, for the violence-plagued French, the worst may be yet to come.
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