PARIS (Reuters) - A French magazine published photos on Thursday of Taliban fighters with trophies taken from French soldiers killed last month in Afghanistan, setting off a new round of pained debate about France's presence there.
President Nicolas Sarkozy and his ministers have said again and again since 10 French soldiers were killed in an ambush on August 18 that France would not falter in its determination to fight the "medieval" and "barbaric" Taliban.
But the pledges ring hollow in the ears of many French people who are suddenly being served blanket coverage of a faraway conflict involving about 2,600 French soldiers that had previously been confined to the inside pages of newspapers.
The weekly magazine Paris Match rekindled emotions with its spread of photos of Taliban fighters displaying French army guns, uniforms, helmets, a walkie-talkie and a wristwatch they said were taken from dead soldiers during the August 18 ambush.
"It's a shock to see our children's killers parading their uniforms, their weapons," said Joel Lepahun, the father of one of the dead soldiers, on RTL radio.
Defence Minister Herve Morin suggested the magazine's reporters had done the Taliban a favour in the propaganda war.
"Should we be doing the Taliban's promotion for them?" he said during an interview on France Inter radio.
"The Taliban are waging a war of communication with this kind of operation. They have understood that public opinion is probably the Achilles' heel of the international community that is present in Afghanistan," he said.
Eric de Lavarene, the journalist who arranged the meeting with the Taliban fighters and interviewed their leader, defended himself against accusations that he was manipulated by them.
"I wouldn't say that. No one talks of propaganda when we set off embedded with NATO troops, yet information is always very tightly controlled on those occasions," he said on i-Tele TV.
"However it is true that the Taliban have become masters in the art of communication," he added.
Unease over the Paris Match photos and the quotes from the Taliban leader named as "Commander Farouki", who threatens to kill every single French soldier in Afghanistan, revived the debate about whether France was doing the right thing there.
During his radio interview, Morin was asked if the government's response to the August 18 ambush had sent out a message that French soldiers were particularly valuable prey.
The interviewer suggested that by flying to Kabul after the ambush, then holding a very solemn memorial ceremony at the grandiose Invalides palace in Paris, Sarkozy had perhaps drawn too much attention to French troops on the ground.
Morin denied this, saying that other nations present in Afghanistan had also suffered heavy losses.
But the agonising over the deaths, France's worst single military loss in 25 years, shows no sign of abating.
The magazine Le Nouvel Observateur ran yet another interview with the parents of one of the dead soldiers on Thursday. Mother Chantal Buil said she had written a letter to Sarkozy.
"Stop following the example of President Bush. His arrogance comes out of every pore. Let's stay French. Let's get our soldiers out of the quagmire," she wrote in her letter.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)