The reluctant assassin and his assigned victim sit over a cup of espresso in a Paris cafe. It is a curious friendship that began when the older man announced that he had been ordered by Iranian secret police to kill the younger man.

The two have little in common. Khan Pira, the unwilling gunman, is a 67-year-old cripple, son of a Georgian prince. The intended victim, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, a journalist, is a hefty man of 38, one of the leaders of the non-Communist Iranian opposition in Paris.

Both are exiles and, like many thousands of others, both have sought refuge in France, recently described by President Giscard d'Estaing as a "land of asylum."

Giscard made the statement during a television interview in which he was asked why he had lagged behind President Carter in championing human rights.

"France's concern for the misfortunes of political refugees equals or surpasses that of any other country," he responded defensively.

Since the 1973 coup in Chile, he said. France has recieved 5,000 Chilean refugees - a number equaled only by Sweden. Since 1975 it has recieved 25,000 refugees from Southwest Asia.

The more than 140,000 refugees living in France are evidence of the widespread violations of human rights that Carter says he is tyring to combat. The flotsam of authoritarian pressures, they come from all parts of the globe: Asia, Africa, South America and Europe.

Four years ago almost all the refugees in France were Europeans. Today most of the new arrivals are from Southeast Asia and South America, fleeing government at opposite extremes of the ideological spectrum but similar in their disregard for human rights.

Many came to France because it is the only country that will take them.

France sets no official quota on the number of refugees it accepts, and about 90 per cent of those who make it to France ask for and receive refugee status.

Last year France accepted as many refugees from Southeast Asia as did the United States, which has four times the population of France.

Refugees can receive varying treatment in France, depending, often, on the country they came from and circumstances here.

Pira and Sadegh say that the French government - then negotiating big contracts with Iran - showed no interest when Pira charged that Savak, the Iranian secret police, had ordered him to kill Sadegh in Paris.

Pira said he offered French authorities tapes of telephone conversations with an alleged Savak official about the plot, but the French did not want them.

The Iranian embassy here dismisses Pira's allegations as "ridiculous." An neatly dressed in suit and tie, Pira "He's an old man and drinks a lot."

A tired little man with thinning gray hair and a discouraged air, neatly dressed in suit and tie, Pira walks with a pronounced limp. He appears a most unlikely assassin.

"The Savak was completely mistaken about the kind of man I am. I'm not a killer." he said. "Maybe I'm just too scared. Maybe I'm just too old."

As a child during the civil war that followed the Russian revolution, Pira escaped with his family from Georgia to Iran. At 17, an art student in Paris, he became a stateless person when a new Iranian government refused to recognize his naturalization.

In 1975 he finally obtained an Iranian passport and began working as a journalist on a French-language daily in Tehran. Early last year, he said, he was summoned to a clandestine meeting and was asked to kill two Iranians hostile to the regime of the shah. They were Sadegh in Paris and Nasser Afchar in Geneva.

He said he was told he would get $200,000 if he killed the men and would lose his job if he refused.

In Paris, Pira went to Sadegh with an unusual offer: They would fake a killing and split the money.

"I refused, of course," Sadegh said. "I would have been completely discredited." Sadegh said he had not believed Pira's story until friends in the United States with government contacts warned him that Savak planned to kill him.

Pira said he then offered his story and the guns he said Savak had given him to the French counter-espionage service in a vain attempt to trade them for political asylum in France.

Now he is afraid to return to Iran and lives under an assumed name, wondering how to make ends meet. Savak gave him $10,000 for initial expenses, he said, but that "melted away like snow in the springtime."

Most refugees, whose stories may not be as dramatic as Pira's can count on help from the French government.

They are fed and housed at government expense for up to six months, and the government pays for French lessons.

"In Sweden and Germany, material conditions are better but we don't feel comfortable there," a Brazilian woman said. "It's a question of warmth, both in the climate and in the temperament. The French are a Latin people."

While many refugees praise their reception here - South Americans in particular speak of a "big current of sympathy" - French policy is also criticized as capricious.

"It's easier to get into France than into the United States, but it's also easier to get expelled," Sadegh said, noting that four Iranian students, who had not been granted refugee status, were summarily expelled after an Iranian diplomat was shot here last fall. "Due process doesn't exist here," Sadegh said.

On the other hand, an American who hijacked a plane in 1972 to protest the Vietman War sought and was granted asylum here.

France requires political refugees to obtain work permits, and finding work is a major problem for refugees trying to adapt to French life. Worst off are the Africans, but many other refugees also find that they must accept jobs for which they are over-qualified.

"One Argentine said that the French must be getting awfully spoiled - they professors and lawyers to look after their children and clean their houses," an American here said.

Two former officials of the Cambodian embassy here drive taxis - a job taken by many White Russian refugees in the 1920s and 1930s.

Many of the refugees appear torn between building a new life here or living in hope of returning home.

"Refugees always tell themselves they will go back to their country, even if it isn't true," said Garold de Wangen, director of the private refugee organization France Terr d'Asile.

"It's an extreme case, but I know refugees who have been in France and who still meet to plan the future government of their country."