Paris — While the American scandal over Iran spreads, the French are quietly trying to extricate themselves from potential embarrassment in the Middle East. Two-thirds of France's 1,380 man contingent in the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon will be withdrawn, French officials confirmed Wednesday. The decision followed numerous attacks against French UNIFIL (UN Interim Forces in Lebanon) soldiers by pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim extremists. A total of 21 French soldiers have been killed since the force was created in March 1978, after the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.
French officials hope to achieve two separate goals by their action: to reduce their casualties in Lebanon without jeopardizing their support for moderate Arabs, and to force Israel to withdraw completely from south Lebanon.
The French long have complained that the Israelis have prevented the peacekeeping force from keeping the peace. In a speech this week, French Foreign Minister Jean-Bernard Raimond said that the UN force had not succeeded in persuading the Israeli military to withdraw behind the international frontier.
At the same time, the French do not want to appear to be succumbing to pressure from the Shiite extremists. In his speech, Mr. Raimond said France remained firmly committed to the peacekeeping force. French officials insisted that 500 to 600 French soldiers would remain in southern Lebanon. They even suggested a reinforcement would be possible if Israeli forces withdrew.
A continued, even if reduced, French presence in Lebanon fits within the larger framework of French policy in the Middle East. In the French view, the West's main interest in the Mideast is to support the friendly governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and north Africa in their struggle against economic trouble and anti-Western Muslim fundamentalism.
How to do this? Prime Minister Jacques Chirac says it is necessary to bargain with the extremists' supporters, namely Syria and Iran. He believes these two countries hold the key not only to the safety of French and American hostages held in Beirut, but to the future shape of Lebanon and the entire Mideastern equation. Military reprisals against Syria for sponsoring terrorism in Europe and a refusal to talk openly with Iran, according to Prime Minister Chirac, merely serve to encourage them to greater extremism.
Since the Reagan administration uses similar logic in defending its arms sales to Iran, it is no wonder that the French have refrained from official criticism of Washington's actions. There have been reports that the French also sold antitank missiles and large amounts of ammunition to Iran.
Public reaction to the political turmoil in Washington also has been restrained. Nonetheless, important questions are being raised about American foreign policy. In the Middle East, the French as well as other Europeans wonder whether Washington's actions will leave the West more isolated than ever in the region, weakening moderate Arab leaders and fueling more Islamic fundamentalism. Israel's deep involvement in the affair heightens this concern.
The Europeans were unnerved by what they perceived as confused execution of United States foreign policy.
They believe President Reagan was not well advised at last month's Iceland summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and did not fully understand his own bargaining positions. The Iran scandal adds to these concerns.
The Europeans, accustomed to centralized executive authority, ask how the President could not know that a White House staff member was using a secret shipment of arms to Iran to fund rebel operations in Nicragua? And how Lt. Col. Oliver North, with his relatively low military rank, could possibly have sufficient authority to mount such an operation on his own?
In posing these questions, the Europeans refrain from criticizing the morality of the US actions.
What worries them instead is the effectiveness of those actions.
``In America, politicians are supposed to be ethical,'' says Oliver Todd, a respected political analyst. ``In France, politicians are supposed to be efficient.''
The message is clear. If the reduction of French forces in Lebanon does not end French casualties there and if its policy of negotiating with Syria and Iran does not keep Paris's streets safe from terrorism, then Chirac's government also could face its own embarrassing Mideast scandal.