FRANCE vigorously denied reports this week that it attempted to use its deep-rooted contacts in the Middle East to negotiate a separate deal for its nationals being held along with thousands of other Westerners in Iraq and Kuwait. French President Fran,cois Mitterrand dismissed the reports on Aug. 21 as mere ``rumors.'' But they received notable attention here and in other Western capitals, partly because of the suspicions and irritation that the initial French approach to the Gulf crisis raised among its Western allies.
Many Western capitals also recall that, during the oil shocks of the 1970s, France developed a reputation for ``licking the soles of Arab sandals'' - as one prominent French cartoon portrayed then-President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing doing - in exchange for special treatment among oil importers.
The latest reports surfaced after a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) official said over state-run French radio Aug. 18 that Iraq had offered to take French citizens into special consideration, following a request from Mr. Mitterrand to PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
In May 1989, Mitterrand received Mr. Arafat at the French presidental palace for a highly controversial meeting.
Claude Cheysson, a former French foreign minister, visited Arafat in Tunis on Aug. 14. The Cheysson visit was part of a diplomatic offensive sent by Mitterrand which included 12 presidential emissaries to 24 Arab and other Islamic or oil-producing countries last week.
But the suspicions raised by this diplomatic mission were further heightened when the emissaries began returning to France and telling the French press that they had, among other things, requested intervention by the nations they visited on behalf of the 560 French citizens detained in Iraq and Kuwait. Mr. Cheysson even reported that he reminded Arafat that ``France is not the United States, and it's not the other countries of Europe.''
At this point, the PLO official spoke on French radio.
French Foreign Ministry officials vehemently denied any attempts to seek special treatment for French nationals. Statements to the contrary from ``Arab diplomats,'' they said, were Iraqi efforts at ``psychological warfare,'' aimed at driving wedges among Western allies.
One spokesman even snapped that ``Mr. Cheysson does not represent the position of Mr. Dumas,'' referring to Roland Dumas, the French foreign minister.
The diplomatic offensive was a logical step for the French. Although they did commit an aircraft carrier and other ships to Gulf waters, the French have from the outset of the crisis favored a negotiated, and notably ``Arab,'' settlement.
In a Gaullist reflex, the French had until this week sought to proclaim their major-power independence by distancing their operations from those of the United States, although they admitted consulting regularly with Washington.
But with Mr. Dumas conceding that the Arab community appears too divided to work effectively toward a settlement, and with Iraq having rounded up at least 34 of France's ``hostages,'' the French have now adopted a position more in line with that of the US.
After initially refusing any use of force to assure compliance with the United Nations embargo on Iraq, the French are instructing their ships in the Gulf to uphold the embargo ``with force'' if necessary. ``An embargo without sanctions would be a sham,'' Mitterrand said on Aug. 21.
The French have also committed Army reconnaissance units to the United Arab Emirates and military instructors to Saudi Arabia.
And Mitterrand, who two weeks ago emphasized French diplomatic efforts, now says the crisis has moved into a ``logic of war'' that Iraq alone can turn back.