In his last newspaper dispatch before he and a colleague fell into the hands of Islamic kidnappers on Aug. 19, French reporter Georges Malbrunot wrote from Iraq that "more and more often, American and British journalists pass themselves off as French when they go into zones at risk."
But being French turned out to be no protection for Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, who are both now under threat of execution from an obscure Islamic group in Iraq. The kidnappers are demanding that the French government rescind a ban on religious head scarves in public schools set to go into effect Thursday.
France was awaiting word Wednesday on the two men, as the deadline for action expired.
The government continued with a diplomatic campaign to win the journalists' release. Foreign Minister Michel Barnier visited Qatar on Wednesday after high-level meetings in Jordan and Egypt. Gen. Philippe Rondot, a Middle East expert involved in the capture of the Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, known as Carlos the Jackal, traveled to Iraq with a team of intelligence agents to try to make contact with the kidnappers, according to French newspapers.
At the same time, government spokesmen repeatedly emphasized that the head-scarf law would be applied when school began.
The crisis has brought home to the French government that its opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq does not make it immune from attack by Islamic extremists.
As a result, said Antoine Sfeir, director of Cahiers de l'Orient, a journal of Middle East affairs, "it is possible that the French line will come closer to the American, in the sense that what is being fought is a globalized war. Even if the French perception of itself is different, France is still part of the West and therefore a target."
But Olivier Roy, an author and expert on Islam, said he believed that French policy would remain unchanged. If anything, France is demonstrating an ability to mobilize Arab Muslim governments and popular opinion in its favor over the crisis, he said.
Leaders of France's Muslim population of 6 million, many of whom had protested the head-scarf ban, roundly condemned the kidnapping. The official French Council of the Muslim Faith originally opposed the ban, but in the wake of the kidnapping, it said the ban should be observed for the time being. On Wednesday, the group dispatched envoys to Iraq in hopes of winning the reporters' release.
"The goal is to mark French Muslim history by showing we are fully and respectfully a French community . . . and to tell the extremists they do not resolve our issues by doing this," said Mohamed Bechar, the council's vice president.
Such attitudes prompted the French newspaper Le Monde to declare a kind of triumph of French identity. "It all demonstrates that the Muslim community has seized the occasion to express, more than it ever has, its attachment to France," the paper said in an editorial.
At the Grand Mosque in downtown Paris, the sense among some worshipers was less effusive. "First, the law on head scarves is useless. Some Muslims will simply refuse to obey and separate from the French," said Ben, who described himself primarily as Muslim and secondarily French Algerian. He declined to give his last name.
Ben and Miram, another worshiper who also gave only her first name, speculated that the kidnapping was an American plot to change French opinion about the war in Iraq. "Still, I oppose kidnapping of any sort," Miriam said. "It is not Islamic."