The French Socialist government has decided to crack down on Armenian terrorists - after two years of leniency. Following last week's bomb explosion at Orly Airport killing six and wounding 55, French police Monday arrested 40 suspected members of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA).
On assuming power in May 1981, the French Socialists expressed sympathy for the Armenian cause and treated Armenien terrorists leniently. Interior Minister Gaston Defferre called their cause ''just,'' and four Armenians arrested for taking hostages at the Turkish Embassy in September 1981 were given light sentences.
Along with this sympathy and leniency, the French press has reported that Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy struck a secret deal with ASALA: there would be no further attacks on French soil in return for French recognition that the Turks had attempted ''genocide'' against the Armenians in 1915. ASALA members supposedly were also granted unrestricted use of French airports.
But in the following two years, this agreement slowly unraveled. Although the French government did show more sympathy for the Armenian cause than other European countries, it was unwilling to anger the Turkish government by recognizing ''genocide.''
Then, in November 1981, French police arrested Dimitri Giorgiu, a militant Armenian, at Orly. Giorgiu was later released, but in an interview last summer with the French daily, Liberation, an ASALA leader expressed anger that the French police were not showing the same good intentions towards the Armenians as the French government.
At the same time, ASALA was apparently becoming more radical. The organization, founded in 1970 and based in Beirut under the auspices of the Palestine Liberation Organization, reportedly split last summer under the strain of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
In the Liberation interview, the ASALA leader spoke of a division in his group between the mainstream and what he called ''the fascists.'' This division obviously resulted in a spate of bombings this year.
On Jan. 22, ASALA claimed two attacks in Paris: one against the offices of Turkish Airlines, the other against the Turkish Airlines' counter at Orly. Neither attack caused any injuries. On Feb. 22, a bomb exploded in front of a Turkish travel agency in Paris, causing the death of a French employee and four injuries to pedestrians in the area.
The spring was free of ASALA violence - but not activity - in France. In April, the head of ASALA, Agop Agopian, visited Paris and was spotted by French agents, radio reports said. The French did not stop Agopian, however, apparently because they feared this would bring an outburst of ASALA attacks.