Paris — First, a Libyan agent is arrested in Paris. Then, in apparent retaliation, 37 Frenchmen in Tripoli are blocked Sunday from boarding their flight to France. And now, is Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi going to hold the French hostage for return of his agent or is he backing down?
Wednesday, there was no definitive answer, but signs were that Colonel Qaddafi seemed about to give in and avoid a truly explosive confrontation.
Speculation here is that the Libyan action is linked to the arrest a week ago of Rashid Said Mohammed Abdullah, a Libyan national, by French secret service men.
Greece's ambassador to Libya announced that the travel restrictions against the 37 Frenchmen had been lifted. There was even talk here that Libya's foreign minister would make a long-planned visit to Paris.
But French Foreign Ministry officials said they had no official word from Tripoli. They continued to describe the affair as ''grave,'' though they said they hoped the blocked Frenchmen would be able to leave on the next Tripoli-Paris flight Thursday.
Meanwhile, according to so-called ''good sources,'' the French press was reporting from Tripoli that the Libyans had forbidden all 1,500 Frenchmen in the country to leave. Foreign Ministry officials emphatically denied this story, calling it ''a lie.''
But no one here is denying the incident brought Franco-Libyan relations close to a complete rupture. These ties, of course, were already frazzled by the French decision to send troops to Chad and block the Libyan Army's advance southward.
Nevertheless, unlike the United States, France has not closed down its embassy in Tripoli. France remains the sixth largest commercial partner with Libya, Libyan oil sales to France have increased during the past two years, and Paris sells more arms to Colonel Qaddafi than does any other country except the Soviet Union.
During the Chad crisis, diplomatic lines have been kept open. Roland Dumas, President Francois Mitterrand's personal lawyer, has reportedly flown to Libya to meet with Qaddafi several times.
The French, too, have continued to consider the Libyan leader as a reasonable , if admittedly adventuresome, man, but now they are asking plaintively what Qaddafi is up to.
''We summoned the Libyan ambassador and demanded an explanation,'' a French Foreign Ministry official said. ''But even after the latest reports that the Frenchmen will be able to leave, the Libyans have given no explanation and no reasons.''