BEIRUT — A YEAR ago, he was riding high on a massive wave of popularity. Scores of thousands of his supporters flocked to form a willing human shield around the presidential palace at Baabda, from where he was defying the Syrians and obstructing the Arab-backed peace plan for Lebanon. Now, Gen. Michel Aoun sits isolated just a mile or two away at the French Embassy, powerless to influence the course of history as it unrolls outside his heavily-guarded windows.
Since Oct. 13, when he sought political asylum in the embassy after Syrian troops stormed the Baabda Palace, Lebanon has heard not a word from the normally far from silent general.
The peace process which he held up for a full year has been taking big strides forward since his overthrow. The militia-free ``Greater Beirut,'' established this week by the Syrian-backed government, includes all the areas the general once controlled.
General Aoun's silence is part of the price he has to pay for refuge. The French are engaged in a tug-of-war with the Lebanese and Syrian governments, who want to put him on trial for war crimes and misappropriation of funds.
The last thing Paris wants is for Aoun to start making politics from inside the embassy. He can receive mail, but everything that goes in or out of the building has to be read by the ambassador.
Since his overthrow, the government has confiscated nearly $33 million from Aoun's local bank accounts. It is trying to retrieve a further $25 million of what it says are public funds diverted overseas. But his followers angrily reject any suggestion that their idol was using public money to feather his own nest.
``Every penny he collected has been scrupulously accounted for,'' says one of his close confidantes.
Despite his decision to surrender only hours after the Oct. 13 attack began, Aoun retains much of his huge popularity in the Christian areas he controlled. Although the zone is now ruled by his adversaries, traffic jams frequently honk the tattoo - ``Ge-ne-ral!'' - that was a hallmark of his days in power.
``None of the people that I knew who supported him have turned against him,'' say one of Aoun's most ardent admirers. ``Some of those who were vacillating condemn him now, but others who see what has happened say, `Why didn't we back him more strongly?'''
About a dozen of the general's top aides, including his intelligence and security chiefs, were captured and taken off to Damascus by the Syrians, who discourage inquiry into their fate. But there has been no generalized witch hunt against his supporters.
``The Syrians are looking for anyone with Iraqi, Israeli, or Hizbollah connections, but they are telling us that they respect General Aoun as a nationalist who was fighting for his country,'' said one of his former intimates.
But the general's overthrow was a crushing blow to the morale of the masses who shared his dream of a Lebanon free from outside influence - and from the exactions of militias which usurped much of the shattered state's power.
``People feel broken, not because Aoun has fallen, but because they know it's the end of a long dream,'' said a well-placed Christian source.
But many still hope that he will one day somehow return. For instance, the same wheel of fortune that unseated Aoun brought back to prominence a former commander of the Christian militia, Elie Hobeika, who was overthrown by Samir Geagea, the current militia chief, nearly five years ago.
Making his comeback on the coattails of the Syrians, Mr. Hobeika was able to repay a debt of honor to Aoun. As Army commander, Aoun had sent a Mercedes to give Hobeika safe conduct out of east Beirut when he lost his battle with Mr. Geagea in January 1986. When Syrian soldiers captured Aoun's wife and daughters at the Baabda Palace last month, Hobeika claimed the privilege of escorting them safely to rejoin the defeated general at the French Embassy.
But for the meantime, Aoun is undoubtedly out of the game. The question is how to get him out of the embassy and into exile, which French President Fran,cois Mitterrand has made a personal point of honor.