Moscow has broadcast a rare hint at possible retreat on a major dissident case, a move foreign diplomats feel was timed partly for a visit here by the French foreign minister.
The statement late Monday from the official Tass news agency concerned Anatoly Shcharansky, the human-rights activist serving a 13-year sentence on charges of spying for the Americans.
Tass stopped far short of saying Mr. Shcharansky would be freed, but hinted this was conceivable.
French President Francois Mitterrand is among Western figures who have sought Mr. Shcharansky's release. French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson is understood to have raised the Shcharansky case during his visit here, which ended Monday.
Amid strains with the Reagan administration, the Kremlin has been escalating efforts to woo West European opinion - particularly on arms control issues. The Soviet Union also has been hoping to shore up relations with France, chillier since Mr. Mitterrand defeated former President Giscard d'Estaing in 1981 elections.
Still, foreign diplomats here suspect the move on Shcharansky, said to have ended a lengthy hunger strike in mid-January, can be explained only in part by the French foreign minister's visit.
The Tass item on Mr. Shcharansky also came less than a week after the sudden postponement of court action against a group of far less prominent Soviet dissidents.
The court action, which would have been the first major dissident trial under new Soviet party leader Yuri Andropov, had been set for Feb. 15. It had already been postponed at least twice, most recently some six weeks after Mr. Andropov succeeded the late Leonid Brezhnev.
At issue is the fate of a half-dozen so-called ''young socialists.'' Detained last April, the youths come mostly from prominent Soviet families and espouse something close to ''Eurocommunism.'' They have shunned all contact with Westerners and advocate reform of the Soviet system from within.
The authorities' explanation for the latest postponement, dissident sources say, was that the judge slated to preside was ill.
Foreign diplomats here argue it is far too early to say whether the Kremlin is indeed contemplating the release of Shcharansky.
The picture on the young socialists is even murkier. Sources among dissidents assume the youths' mere arrest - when Mr. Andropov was head of the KGB - makes eventual trial and conviction inevitable.
Soviet officials, always reluctant to discuss dissident issues, have not been immediately available for comment on either Shcharansky or the young socialists.
But Western diplomats postulate Mr. Andropov may genuinely have come to feel Moscow has much less to gain than lose in freeing Shcharansky, if the release could be managed politically.
Tass said in effect that if the West curbed its ''noisy propaganda campaign'' on the dissident's behalf, early release was conceivable: ''Soviet legislation, like the laws of many other countries, does not exclude the possibility that prison terms may be commuted in response to pleas for pardon.'' The Tass report, evidently for foreign consumption, appeared in no Moscow newspapers Tuesday.
Officials here, while not suggesting Andropov feels any personal sympathy for dissidents, do paint him as a realist apt to resist an overly dogmatic approach to policy.
Some diplomats figure releasing Shcharansky might appeal to a Kremlin intent on wooing West Europeans. This would seem true for France's leaders - who, if gradually less chilly toward Moscow, still stand closer to the US on issues like arms control and Afghanistan.
Diplomats note that Andropov leaked a hint on Shcharansky similar to Tass's in a January letter - to French Communist Party leader Georges Marchais.