The assassination of France's chief arms salesman by an urban guerrilla group has raised the specter of left-wing political terrorism in one of the few Western European countries that has so far been largely immune from this kind of violent crime.

French political leaders reacted with dismay today to the killing last night of Gen. Rene Audran, a Defense Ministry official in charge of France's sizable arms exports. The crime was described as "an attack on democracy" by the leader of the ruling Socialist Party, Lionel Jospin.

The shooting of Audran, 55, outside his Paris suburban home marks the first such slaying of a senior French Army officer in more than 20 years. It comes as police in France and other Western European countries are investigating reports of coordinated activity among French, West German and Belgian terrorists against North Atlantic Treaty Organization targets.

Responsibility for the general's death was claimed by the French terrorist group Direct Action, which was founded in 1979 and has stepped up its activities over the past year. Earlier this month, international news agencies in Paris received letters signed by Direct Action and the West German Red Army Faction stating that they had formed a joint "political-military front in Western Europe."

In contrast with West Germany and Italy, domestic left-wing terrorism rarely has posed a major threat in France. Direct Action -- regarded by police as a smaller, less menacing organization than either the Red Army Faction or the Italian Red Brigades -- has concentrated on attacks against property.

Sociologists believe that one of the reasons for the relative failure of left-wing terrorism to take hold in France until now has been the Gaullist emphasis on national independence. It could be significant that one of the recurring themes in Direct Action communiques has been a denunciation of recent moves to integrate France's defense policies more closely with those of NATO.

In a statement in November, Direct Action accused "American imperialism" of attempting to create "a unified system of oppression on European territory through the development of political, economic and military structures in this region." Similar language has been used by the Red Army Faction in West Germany and by the Fighting Revolutionary Cells in Brussels.

Many of the targets chosen by French, West German and Belgian terrorists in recent months have been symbols of military cooperation between Western Europe and the United States, such as U.S. military installations in West Germany and a NATO pipeline in Belgium.

Officials in the United States and Western Europe have said that they are pooling information about possible terrorist attacks.

The evidence of coordination between terrorist groups has come as a setback to police after a succession of important antiterrorist trials in West Germany, France and Italy. The number of active members of the Red Army Faction is estimated at no more than 20, while Direct Action is even smaller.

Most known members of Direct Action are in detention, although its founder is still at liberty.

Police said that the killing of Audran bore the marks of a professional assassination. The general was shot by eight bullets from a .45-caliber pistol as he was parking his car in front of his house after returning from work. A witness saw three men running away in the dark.

Responsibility for the attack was claimed in phone calls to French media.

Audran was responsible for overseeing and coordinating arms exports for France, the third-largest arms exporter in the world.