France has a tough new top cop. His name is Charles Pasqua and he has become a controversial symbol of how this country has changed since a right-wing election victory in March.

As minister of the interior in the new conservative government headed by Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, Pasqua has masterminded an extremely visible law-and-order campaign designed to underline the break with five years of Socialist rule. The energy with which he has pursued this goal has delighted the traditional right but alarmed civil libertarians and the left.

The son of a humble police officer, Pasqua made clear that he believes that the police had been "muzzled" by the Socialists. Within hours of his appointment, the police were ordered to step up identity checks on the streets of Paris. This was followed by a barrage of proposals for new anticrime legislation, including high-tech identity cards and an incommutable 30-year prison sentence for terrorists.

A nationwide debate over the government's methods for combating crime took a new twist this month with a series of incidents that illustrated the problems that Pasqua is up against. There was an upsurge of indignation after a left-wing terrorist group known as Direct Action managed to smuggle a bomb into an annex of the Paris police headquarters on July 9. The explosion killed a senior police officer and wounded 22 others.

Four days earlier, a different kind of outcry greeted the killing of a 28-year-old Frenchman by a member of the riot police. An autopsy showed that the victim, Loic Lefevre, had been shot twice in the back as he ran away from the scene of an automobile collision.

For Pasqua's critics, Lefevre's shooting provided a perfect example of the risks of "unmuzzling" the police. The president of the French lawyers' union, Gerard Boulanger, disputed the government's claim that it was "terrorizing the terrorists." Instead, Boulanger commented, "Pasqua's police" are "headed in the direction of terrorizing the citizen."

Apparently unperturbed by all the criticism, Pasqua accused the French press and television of biased reporting of the incident. He told parliament that he was "scandalized" by the amount of coverage given to "alleged eyewitness" accounts of the shooting that undermined the policeman's claim to have acted in self-defense.

Controversy is no stranger to Pasqua, a 58-year-old Corsican who began his political career in the French resistance movement in World War II. Fiercely loyal to the late Gen. Charles de Gaulle, he once served as vice president of a volunteer security squad known as SAC (the French initials for Civic Action Service) that was later branded as a criminal organization by a parliamentary committee of inquiry.

In 1968, after the student riots that almost toppled de Gaulle's government, Pasqua organized a huge counterdemonstration in favor of the general on the Champs-Elysees. The June 30 demonstration is now viewed as the turning point in the revolution -- the moment when the silent majority of French voters finally made their voice heard. After de Gaulle's death, Pasqua transferred his political loyalties to Chirac as president of the neo-Gaullist Rally for a Republic.

Known for his opinionated attitudes and caustic wit, Pasqua has retained a knack for capturing the headlines since becoming a minister. In May, he provoked a mass walkout of Socialists from the National Assembly by insinuating that some of them had been guilty of collaboration with the Nazis -- probably the biggest insult anybody can throw at a French politician.

The following month, Pasqua virtually dismissed the Paris police chief on nationwide television following the unauthorized release of crime statistics favorable to the previous Socialist government. "A prefect of police does what the government tells him to do; otherwise he is replaced in 24 hours," he declared. The prefect promptly resigned.

At a recent breakfast meeting with American journalists, Pasqua said that France would increase cooperation with other western countries against terrorism. He accused the Socialists of having "a complex" about dealing with terrorists on the grounds that they confused political terrorism with legitimate resistance to dictatorial rule.

Surprising his audience by declaring that "I was myself a terrorist once," Pasqua explained that he had resorted to bombings and other terrorist methods to fight the Nazis in World War II. But he added: "When you are fighting a dictatorship, you don't have any other way of expressing yourself. But if you use these methods against a democratic regime, then you are a fascist."

Public opinion polls have shown that Pasqua's new law-and-order campaign is popular with the voters, particularly among supporters of the extreme right-wing National Front. The previous Socialist government is widely believed to have lost votes in the March 16 election because of a perception that it was soft on criminals.

Ordering the police into the streets is a relatively easy way for the conservative government to show that things are changing in France at a time when it is already having difficulty implementing its ambitious economic program. Last week, Chirac announced that another 1,500 policemen would be recruited to patrol the streets of Paris beginning next year.