FRANCE, WITH other European countries, is firmly committed to limiting the spread of Iranian influence by arms or ideology. The French participate in the escort of Persian Gulf shipping threatened by Iran, support the United Nations effort aimed at halting the Iranian invasion of Iraq and are No. 2 in arms sales to Iraq, after the Soviet Union. Yet in one aspect -- hostages -- the French pursue a contrary policy of accommodating Iran. The French public has been actively bent on recovery of the 10 French citizens taken hostage by one or more Iran-oriented terrorist groups operating in Lebanon. French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, who is running for president, has made their recovery a personal priority.
Are the French paying too high a price? Not for the first time, the question arose over the weekend after the sixth and seventh hostages were released. It was the way the ''war of the embassies'' came to an end. In this six-month test of wills, French police had bottled up Iran's embassy, where an Iranian suspect in a deadly wave of bombings had taken refuge, and Iranian authorities then had bottled up France's embassy, garnishing the offense by accusing a French diplomat of spying. On Sunday, the French whisked the Iranian suspect through a perfunctory hearing in an ostensibly independent French court and flew him out of the country, while the Iranians passed the French diplomat through a hearing in Tehran and flew him out too. Diplomatic relations, broken last July, are to be restored, and there is talk of France's paying off the remaining two-thirds of a $1 billion loan tendered by the late shah. There is talk, too, of the return of the three French hostages still in Lebanon.
At an earlier stage in this sequence, we criticized the French government for caving in to terrorists -- word of arms deals and leniency was being bandied about at that time. Our criticism was terribly excited, as we recall it, and, we of course thought, devastating. To our considerable humiliation it was followed in a matter of days by the disclosure that the United States, in the name of cultivating Iranian moderates, had undertaken an exchange of arms for hostages -- a violation of policy, sense and dignity extending far beyond anything attributed to the French. This time around, discretion bids Americans leave questioning of French policy to the French, most of whom seem pleased enough to get back the two hostages and not too concerned by the cost. Still, it can only be a matter of regret that another tear has been made in the fabric of respect for law and democratic institutions that is the West's pride.