Eschel Rhoodie, South Africa's flamboyant former secretary of state for information, was arrested at his French Riviera home yesterday on an international warrant issued by South African authorities.

Rhoodie, 46, once his country's chief propagandist for apartheid, is wanted by South Africa on charges of misusing $72 million in government funds. The money was part of a secret South African fund set up to promote favorable press coverage of the government and its racial policies at home and abroad.

Revelation of the fund's existence created a major scandal in South Africa and eventually forced the resignations of former president John Vorster, former information minister Cornelius Mulder and other senior officials. Further disclosures could have even wider repercussions, possibly even bringing down the present government in Pretoria of Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha and implicating politicians in Western countries.

Since the scandal broke, Rhoodie has tried to parlay his inside knowledge of the scandal into personal wealth and protection against possible attempts by the South African government to arrest or otherwise silence him.

It was unclear why South Africa pressed for Rhoodie's arrest, knowing that such a move could prompt him to make disclosures that would undermine the Pretoria government. Nor was it clear why the French acted now on the South African request to arrest Rhoodie.

There was speculation that, from Pretoria's point of view, recent official reports in South Africa had revealed the most damaging information and that further disclosures would embarrass primarily foreign politicians.

Before settling in France, Rhoodie turned up in a number of places around the world, including countries in Europe and South America.

Rhoodie, the suave son of a prison warden, alternately has offered to sell information about the secret fund to news organizations and withhold such disclosures in return for rewards from South African officials.

After fleeing South Africa in November as details of the scandal were becoming public, Rhoodie was named in an official inquiry as a key figure in the illicit use of millions of dollars in public funds by his Information Department. In March, Botha's government issued an arrest warrant for Rhoodie on charges of fraud and embezzling some of those funds to finance his high living.

It was under that warrant that French police arrested Rhoodie today in the Riviera resort town of Juan-les-Pins and took him to a prison in Grasse.

Rhoodie had been living fairly openly under his own name and frequently left his residence to play tennis in the area. His wife and two children lived with him in an apartment he is believed to own.

Rhoodie is to appear before the appeals court in Aix-en-Provence, which will rule on the validity of the international arrest warrant and may recommend extradition.

In Pretoria, South African Justice Minister Frederik De Klerk said the government would "use all possible channels to have him returned to South Africa," regardless of whether any extradition agreement with Frnace exists or applies. He said he was unsure whether South Africa has such a treaty with France.

Shortly before South Africa called for Rhoodie's arrest, Gen. Hendrik Van den Bergh, the former head of the country's Bureau of State Security, flew to Paris and offered him employment in a foreign country by a millionaire South African industrialist in return for withdrawing his threat to sell secrets of the information scandal.

The general was publicly rebuked by Prime Minister Botha for making the offer, and the deal fell through.

Since then Rhoodie has offered his disclosures to the British Broadcasting Corp. for $200,000, but he settled for a free interview in which he dropped hints of potential revelations after the BBC refused to pay his fee.

In the interview, Rhoodie said Botha "initiated at Cabinet level" at least two secret projects in the multimillion-dollar campaign to buy foreign support for South Africa.

He refused to further identify the projects, but he said about $100 million had been spent since 1973 to "establish organizations and institutes and to support groups and individuals to persuade them to back South Africa on certain important issues."

Rhoodie denied that any payments were made to U.S. politicians, but would not rule out the possibility that money was secretly spent in the United States on behalf of South Africa to discredit or remove from office politicians who opposed Pretoria's policies.

One of Rhoodie's attempts to buy influence for South Africa in the United States, according to earlier revelations of the scandal, was an unsuccessful bid by a Michigan publisher to purchase the Washington Star for $26 million - a sum which included $11.5 million from the secret South African fund.

The U.S. publisher, John McGoff, was seen by South african officials as an invaluable ally because of his friendship with former president Gerald Ford. McGoff was also a friend of Van den Bergh and gave South Africa favorable press coverage in the Sacramento Union, which he bought in 1974. McGoff has denied that South African funds were used in his attempt to purchase the Star or that any foreign governments have an interest in his publications.

Rhoodie has said he possesses a "massive document" that details all South Africa's secret influence-buying projects over the past five years, including those currently operating. The document allegedly lists the amounts of money spent and the name of recipients in the United States, Europe and Africa.

According to Rhoodie, the document is "safely locked away" in a European bank vault - and would be made public, presumably by a confederate, if he were arrested or harmed. CAPTION: Picture, ESCHEL RHOODIE...charged with embezzlement