As French troops prepare to leave Beirut, a sad score card of their 17 months in Lebanon is being drawn up. Like the Americans, the French arrived in Lebanon to keep the peace after the Sabra and Shatila massacres. But as an ostensibly neutral presence, they soon found themselves caught in a civil war with no way to separate themselves from the American effort to shore up the government of President Amin Gemayel.
The result was disastrous. Eighty-seven Frenchmen have died in Beirut, including 58 in a truck-bomb attack in October. Ever since then, the French publicly have stood firm - while privately lambasting United States policy failures and frantically searching for a face-saving withdrawal.
The graceful way out came last week, with the Soviet veto of France's proposal to send a United Nations force to Beirut. The French could then say they had done all they could to salvage the situation.
''Our contingent is no longer appropriate for helping efforts to reach a national reconciliation among the Lebanese,'' said a Foreign Ministry statement. ''France, which more than anyone else has fulfilled its obligations to its friend, cannot alone carry the responsibility of the entire community of nations in Lebanon.''
Officials said that one last diplomatic effort - perhaps a trip by Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson to Beirut to push national reconciliation - would be made before the 1,250 French soldiers withdrew. But they added that the troops could leave any time in the next six weeks.
This confirms French pessimism for any type of quick solution. In truth, the French never seemed to have a clear plan of how to use their forces in Beirut to bring about a settlement.
France pushed President Gemayel, a Christian, to make concessions for more equitable sharing of power with his Druze and Muslim opponents. France's ruling Socialists touted their ties with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Muslim leader Nabih Berri.
But the French did not succeed in appearing impartial. Their troops stood alongside American troops. Moreover, France is a close ally of Iraq, which is at war with Iran. It is perhaps no accident, then, that suicide bombers with alleged ties to Iran struck both French and US troops last October.
The French also could not hide their difficulties with Syria. In l982, the French blamed Damascus for the bombing of the headquarters of a dissident Syrian newspaper near the Champs Elysees. France expelled several Syrian diplomats.
So despite their criticism of the US failure to negotiate seriously with Syria, the French could not offer themselves as privileged interlocuters with Damascus. In the end, they miscalculated Syrian intentions as badly as did the Americans.
The day after Israel and Lebanon signed a troop withdrawal accord last May, the French said they thought it possible that Syria would go along and pull its troops out. The Syrians refused outright.
Later, after the US retaliated for the October bombing, the French privately approved. Their intelligence was that Syrian President Hafez Assad was blind and dying, making it a good time to try to bully the Syrians into making concessions. A few days later, though, Assad reappeared, apparently fully recovered.
The latest French initiative was to bring the Soviets into the peace process. A first step toward this, Paris said, would be to obtain the Kremlin's agreement for a UN force in Beirut.
Foreign Minister Cheysson brought up the possibility with his Soviet counterpart, Andrei Gromyko, in Stockholm Jan. l6. Mr. Gromyko was positive, provided certain conditions were met, namely that Western forces withdraw. Meanwhile, Mr. Cheysson's deputy, Francis Gutman, went to Damascus to obtain Syrian agreement on the project. The Syrian response was also positive.
But then the US pulled out its Marines and the Soviets added more conditions. While the French publicly continued to play the UN card, privately they said the Soviet veto was inevitable. When it came, the French admitted defeat and announced
their intention to withdraw.
The tactic of waiting out the UN maneuvering proved shrewd domestically. Unlike the reaction among Americans to the Marine pullout, there has been little criticism here of government policy on Lebanon.
Despite some misgivings by the Communists, the left could not refuse its support to a government of the left. The conservative opposition could not bring itself to criticize toughness either.
Even after casualties mounted, polls showed public approval for continued support of France's former colony. So after testing every diplomatic avenue, France can leave with its honor intact.
But the defeat may hurt French interests in the Mideast as much as US ones. The worst-case scenario now presents itself for France: a partioned Lebanon under an antagonistic Syrian tutelage.