IN THE GREAT debate over government regulation, where does Washington stand on the question of French whorehouses?

This is not a small matter, at least not in France. The debate is raging there because of a bill that would reopen, under municipal supervision, legal brothels that have been closed for 30 years. Prostitutes, who ply their trade legally in France, are complaining that the measure would meddle with their free-enterprise right to transact business on their own terms, on the streets or wherever.

If Woodrow Wilson were president, the United States would be out front on French brothels. He was against them. After America entered World War I, Wilson declared: "The federal government has pledged its word that as far as care and vigilance can accomplish the result, the men committed to its charge will be returned to the homes and communities which so generously gave them with no scars except those won in honorable warfare."

The president was thinking about France and what Americans perceived as French moral decadence. The popular song, "How're You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm, After They've Seen Paree?" masked real fears. Newton D. Baker, secretary of war, said:

"These boys are going to France; they are going to face conditions we do not like to talk about, that we do not like to think about . . . I want them to have invisible armor . . . a moral and intellectual armor for their protection overseas."

In France prostitution was legal then, too, and all European combatants maintained brothels for their soldiers, with separate facilities for officers. The French, working through local authorities, operated brothels for their British allies, and they proposed the same arrangements to the Americans. Using the same arguments advanced in France today, the proponents of maisons tolerees claimed that the brothels permitted better police control and tended to reduce veneral disease by permitting regular health inspections.

The U.S. government would have none of it. Baker, a former mayor of Cleveland, had already used all the power available to the War Department to close red light districts in this country, a feat accomplished in the face of considerable political pressure.

He had, for example, faced down a Louisiana delegation consisting of the mayor of New Orleans, a congressman and two U.S. senators, who argued for "the God-given right of men to be men." They pleaded for the War Department to ignore red light districts in Alexandria and New Orleans, the latter a major tourist attraction. Unmoved, Baker threatened to relocate the New Orleans naval base and shut down Camp Beauregard. Reluctantly, city authorities closed the brothels and began arresting streetwalkers. "He'll stop the war"

In France the decisive test came in the fall of 1917 at St. Nazaire, a town of about 40,000 on the west coast of France and the main port of debarkation for U.S. troops during the early stages of the war. The American authorities asked that brothels be closed in St. Nazaire and that action be taken against unlicensed streetwalkers. The latter, known as clandestines, were believed to outnumber licensed prostitutes by five or six to one, even in peacetime.

The French chief of mission assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) replied that closing the brothels would be impossible. He made one carefully worded concession: "Clandestine prostitution will be relentlessly repressed and severe action taken against the culprits, with this special reservation, that a careful distinction must be made between professional debauchery and passing shortcoming, and efforts must always tend to safeguard family honor."

Such distinctions did not interest the Americans. Unable to close the brothels, they placed them off limits to U.S. doughboys and placed military police at the doors. The mayor of St. Nazaire protested with no better success than by his counterpart in New Orleans.

At one point a French proposals for establishing maisons tolerees for Americans went to Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF. Pershing bucked the memorandum to Raymond B. Fosdick, chairman of the Commission on Training Camp Activities and the brother of a well-known minister, Harry Emerson Fosdick. Fosdick bucked it to Baker.

The buck stopped there. Baker sent it back to Fosdick with a note: "For God's sake, Raymond, don't show this to the president or he'll stop the war."

In addition to combating French officialdom, the American authorities barraged the troops with propaganda against contact with prostitutes, appealing alternately to idealism and fear of veneral disease. Morever, soldiers who admitted to having had sexual intercourse while on leave were required to submit to a penile douche upon return to camp. (Black troops were required to undergo this treatment whether or not they acknowledged sexual intercourse.)

From an official point of view, the U.S. position was highly successful, at least until the end of the war. The American veneral disease rate was strikingly lower than that of any European army. Prophylactic measures helped, but the main reason was that AEF police measures greatly reduced the frequency of sexual contacts.

Now, more than 60 years later, the prostitutes have organized, and it is they who have defined the terms of the debate: government regulation vs. free enterprise. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have had ample opportunity to learn that, for some kinds of regulation, what seems to be required is a war, not merely the moral equivalent of one.