United Nations, N.Y. — The French government has embarked on a complicated and potentially damaging diplomatic retreat. Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson - according to high-level third-world sources - is asking Yasser Arafat this week to agree that the conference on Palestinian rights, scheduled to be held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris this August, be moved elsewhere.
The decision to hold this conference in Paris was taken last August at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. To some extent it was intended as a token of Palestinian gratitude toward France, whose military units, as part of the international force stationed in Beirut, had helped save the forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from destruction.
Recently, however, political pressures against holding the conference in Paris have been building up in France. Pro-Israeli interest groups are making themselves felt at the highest levels. And French security agencies are reportedly concerned that Middle Eastern terrorist groups might provoke bloody incidents such as the one last August in the Jewish-populated Rue des Rosiers that claimed six lives.
It is feared that any such occurrence would lead French and American Jews to accuse the French government of being insensitive to Jewish interests and of inciting anti-Semitism by giving PLO ''propaganda'' an open forum at the UNESCO meeting.
But only the General Assembly can change the date and place of the conference , and this would require a two-thirds majority. France is unlikely to make a public request to the General Assembly, especially since some UN members would view such a request as a sign of weakness, or according to one source, as a ''diplomatic scuttling.''
Hence the attempt to get PLO leader Yasser Arafat to call for a change of venue and spare France possible embarrassment. But if Arafat does this, he may try to extract a very high price for his good will, such as the opening of a PLO station in Paris or a face-to-face meeting with President Mitterrand.
Is France ready to pay such a price? That remains to be seen. Arafat, of course, could persuade his many friends in the nonaligned movement to vote for a change of site. France, according to the same sources, will not admit that it wants to move the conference elsewhere out of ''timidity.'' The argument to be put forward by Paris is that the conference should be held ''urgently'' and that , since UNESCO is not ready at this time to play host to it, it should be held in Geneva, possibly next month.