Ever since two French hostages were freed in Lebanon, a nagging question has lingered: What price did France pay to Iran? The answer became a bit clearer this week as French police rounded up 17 members of an Iranian opposition movement, 14 Iranians and 3 Turks, and ordered them expelled to Gabon, in West Africa. Nine others are under house arrest for ``pressing reasons of national security.''
French officials also announced they expect soon to make a $330 million payment on a $1 billion loan owed to Iran, and that the aircraft carrier Clemenceau was being pulled off patrol in the Gulf of Oman at the mouth of the Gulf for ``technical maintenance.''
These actions constitute a concerted French effort to normalize relations with Iran, analysts say. As conditions for better relations, Tehran has demanded a lower French profile in the Gulf, resolution of the loan, and silencing of Iranian opposition in France.
``Normalization of French-Iranian relations is necessary for the liberation of Marcel Carton, Marcel Fontaine, and Jean-Paul Kauffmann,'' the three remaining French hostages in Lebanon, commented Yves Hellier of Le Monde. ``But the process is moving so fast that it is hard to explain abroad.''
Indeed, the French-Iranian negotiations have provoked angry accusations of betrayal.
The British, the Americans, and the Iranian exiles themselves all accuse the French of breaking the spirit of international agreements not to deal with terrorists.
To French officials, such arguments are hypocritical and misplaced.
How, they ask, can the Reagan administration complain when it sold arms to the Iranians? The French protest that they have not and will not sell arms to Iran. Nor, they add, was a monetary ransom paid for the hostages. Repaying a debt, the French argue, is different from being bribed.
French policy in the Gulf has not changed, the officials insist. Instead of bowing to Iranian demands to end arms sales to Iraq, France's Dassault Aviation reportedly is preparing to fill a new order for 20 new Mirage fighters. France is Iraq's second-biggest arms supplier, after the Soviet Union, and French officials insist their support is not negotiable.
And despite the decision to withdraw the aircraft Clemenceau from the Gulf, the officials say other French warships will remain.
Yes, the French admit they are wooing Iran. But that is not new, they explain. Ever since the first French hostages were taken captive three years ago, it has been French policy to influence the Tehran government to gain their release.
The present partial success simply results from the Iranian desire to break out of its diplomatic isolation, the French say. Tehran took the initiative in the hostage deal, they point out.
Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman for the Mojahedin exiles in Washington, says of the French expulsion action: ``We are being used as ransom. The French government has given in to the demands of the little Hitler, that is [Ayatollah] Khomeini.''
A French Interior Ministry statement explained that the dissidents' presence in France ``gravely harms public order,'' and Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, the architect of the opening to Iran, explained without any sign of remorse that ``this action is part of the policy we have defined.''
While such attitudes don't seem to trouble the French public - overall, criticism of the hostage deal has been muted here - the reputation of the French judiciary is suffering. French judges long have been suspected of following political orders. The judges did nothing to stop the expulsions.