Last week two French banks put up $140 million as part payment in advance to the Soviet Union for natural gas to be brought west through a pipeline to be built from Siberia to Western Europe.
The credits will help the Soviets hire the technicians and buy the materials which are to come from the West for construction of the pipeline.
In other words, as of Feb. 10 when the new French deal was signed, the French government (without whose approval no French bank would sign contracts with the Soviet Union) continues to persist in the building of the pipeline regardless of the wishes of the Reagan administration that it would not do so.
The West Germans are also taking part in the arrangements and credits which are intended to make natural gas from Siberia available to countries in Western Europe. The availability is particularly desired by those countries in Western Europe which do not own segments of the North Sea oil fields. British, Danes and Norwegians are not interested. They are oil exporters thanks to North Sea oil. But French, Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Swedes and the peoples who live at the mouth of the Rhine (Dutch, Belgians and Luxembourgers) are all very much interested. They depend heavily on imports for their energy.
Of the countries which expect to buy and use the natural gas from Siberia the most important are France and West Germany. These also happen to be the two major continental members of the NATO alliance.
Is it reprehensible for the French and the West Germans to be still doing this kind of business with the Soviet Union two months after political freedom in Poland was stamped out by the Polish army, presumably responding to pressure from Moscow, and two years after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan where it continues to deny freedom and self-determination to the Afghan peoples?
The answer depends on whether one starts with the assumption that the Soviet Union and its ideology are implacable enemies of the Western world and of its culture and ideology.
If you assume that the Soviet system is a hostile force in the world and that sooner or later either it will triumph over the West or be overthrown from the West - then of course the pipeline is a mistake. To build the pipeline and to use the gas which will flow from it is trafficking with the enemy. It is the kind of traffic which will contribute to the economic welfare of the Soviet state. Western hard currency spent for the gas will make it possible for the Soviets to buy many things from the West including modern machinery and thus help to keep their economy going.
Some of that hard currency from Western Europe will be spent on grain from the US which President Reagan intends to continue selling to the Soviets.
So, the first point that needs to be made is that for the French and West Germans and other Europeans to buy natural gas from the Soviets is no more reprehensible than it is for the Americans to continue to sell grain to the Soviets. Both deeds have the net effect of sustaining the economy of the Soviet Union. That economy sustains the Soviet government, and the Soviet economic and military system.
There is a second point of view about the nature of the Soviet Union. It assumes that the Soviet Union is a country in slow and gradual transition from what it was under Stalin to what it may become in the future. Will it always be an ''enemy'' of the West? Or is it a country and a system which is bound to change and which can be helped to change in a constructive direction by wise Western policies?
The idea that the Soviet Union must change and can be helped to change in a constructive direction was inherent in the thinking of the Western statesmen who , during the Nixon-Kissinger era in Western foreign policy, applied the idea of ''detente'' to East-West relations. They believe that tying the economy of the West to the physical well-being of the Soviets would, in the long run, exert pressures on Moscow to move and to evolve into something less dangerous and less damaging to others.
The Reagan administration rejects the theory behind detente. It preaches the implacable hostility of the Soviet system. Its preachers even talk about the inevitability of war. They sometimes say we're living in a pre-war situation.
But Mr. Reagan canceled his predecessor's embargo on the export of US grain to the Soviets. He refuses to reimpose that embargo on account of the events in Poland. Europeans would not cancel the oil pipeline unless Mr. Reagan would give up his own grain market in the Soviet Union.
In other words,, Mr. Reagan practices detente while preaching against it.