The media first dubbed it France's Irangate. But as the dust settles, the scandal over French arms sales to Iran promises to inflict far less political damage than did its American counterpart. Between 1983 and 1986, a French company, Luchaire, sold 450,000 artillery shells to Iran despite a French embargo on such sales. That fact was confirmed in February, 1986. At the time, the Socialist government was not tied to the sales.
But new allegations surfaced last week in two French news weeklies that the sales took place with the complicity of high-ranking socialist officials, including former Defense Minister Charles Hernu and President Francois Mitterrand, and that some of the money from the sales were diverted to Socialist Party coffers.
A poll published Sunday concerning the disclosures, which were based on leaks from a confidential report compiled by the comptroller-general of the French Armed Forces, indicates 72 percent of the public considers this a serious affair.
Socialist officials last week denied any wrongdoing. That, of course, was to be expected. What an American might not have expected was French conservative leaders, on the whole, would play down the issue. Conservative Premier Jacques Chirac, who is expected to contest the presidency in April elections, has said he has no intention of calling Mr. Mitterrand to account over the affair.
``Let's not get rolled up in scandals,'' cautioned former president Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing. ``It isn't good for either the political class or for France's reputation.'' His response illustrates how political cultures differ across the Atlantic.
French politicians are judged more on their political effectiveness than morality or character. For instance, the French were amused by the American furor over the Gary Hart-Donna Rice scandal.
Consider the 1985 Rainbow Warrior affair. When French spies in New Zealand blew up the ship belonging to the antinuclear Greenpeace group, few here questioned the act's legality, although the government did for some time deny involvement in the policy. The uproar stemmed from anger over how the botched plan sullied France's national honor.