COME LISTEN TO THE president of France complain about the criticism his government has received for releasing suspected Palestinian terrorist Abu Daoud. The real problem, President Giscard d'Estaing said at his press conference Monday, was that West Germany did not respond to a formal French request to dispatch certain extradition documents. So the court that had jurisdiction over Mr. Daoud had no choice but to let him go. One scarcely knows whether to laugh or cry.
In fact, this is grotesque. By treaty and practice, the period allotted for filing the documents in question is 20 days.The government of France allowed but one day. It was not that Germany did not respond in a proper fashion. France moved smartly to ensure that Germany would not. Once Paris found itself with the accused planner of the Munich massacre on its hands - thanks to the diligence of the French police - the last thing it wanted was for normal procedures to be followed. That would have put it into political confrontation with the Arab nations whose judgments on Mideast matters it has come to accept as its own.
"I would like to say," Mr. Giscard d'Estaing remarked at his press conference, "just as General de Gaulle used to say . . ." It is revealing to see the president evoking the symbol as well as the sentiment of French nationalism in order to justify the "independent policy" of France. No doubt some Frenchmen will respond favorably to his flight away from the merits of the case. One almost has a certain sympathy for Mr. Giscard, who is hard pressed to maintain his government's balance these days on account of economic and political disappointments that have nothing to do with Abu Daoud. But is it not bizarre to hear French "independence" rationalized on grounds that a German clerk failed to file a routine piece of paper 19 days ahead of schedule?
It pleases the president to term the widespread criticism of his government's policy a "campaign belittling France." France is being belittled but not by any "campaign." Our guess is that some of the very Arab nations that demanded the freeing of Abu Daoud were astounded - and in some cases perhaps disappointed - to see Mr. Giscard d'Estaing's government yielding him up as quickly and shamelessly as it did.
There is a special flaw in the assertion of "independence" on the terrorism issue. For terrorism in many of its guises is a peculiarly international phenomenon. Its practitioners need the physical and moral shelter of one nation in order to conduct their operations in another. It follows that the fight against terrorism must be an international one. If the nations whose citizens or values are assaulted by terror do not cooperate with each other to combat it, then they diminish their safety and their claim on a common heritage as well. It is Mr. Giscard d'Estaing's failure to acknowledge this fundamental truth that makes his defense almost as dispiriting as the original act itself.