Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has left French officials with the impression that he is prepared to consider freeing dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov as a gesture to western public opinion.
These officials, who were deeply involved in Gorbachevv's four-day visit to Paris last week, stressed that France has not received any clear promise from the Soviets on Sakharov, who has been in internal exile in the closed city of Gorki since January 1980. They added that any release is unlikely before Gorbachev meets with President Reagan in Geneva in November.
But the French government is certain to report to the Reagan administration that the talks here produced more flexibility on Gorbachev's part on the question of Sakharov and other human rights issues than on arms control questions and other subjects that will come up during the November summit.
French officials declined to comment about reports from West Germany that the United States and the Soviet Union have already begun secret contacts through an East German lawyer to win the freedom of Sakharov and Anatoly Scharansky, a Jewish mathematician and human rights activist who was convicted of espionage and sentenced in March 1977 to a labor camp in Siberia.
In private conversations with President Francois Mitterrand and other officials, Gorbachev did not raise the usual Soviet argument that Sakharov, a 64-year-old physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped develop the Soviet hydrogen bomb, still possesses state secrets that make it impossible for him to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union.
Officials were particularly struck by a long conversation that Danielle Mitterrand, the president's wife, held with Gorbachev Friday night at a dinner at the Soviet Embassy. Danielle Mitterrand reportedly raised the question of Sakharov in a direct fashion with Gorbachev, who did not bristle at the subject and seemed to take her remarks seriously.
The United States had asked the French leader to pursue human rights questions in general and the case of Sakharov in particular as vigorously as possible during the Paris meeting in hopes that Reagan will be able to push the matter even further in Geneva, according to diplomatic sources.
During his public comments last week Mitterrand avoided mentioning the Sakharov case, in part because of concern here that publicizing the French effort might cause Gorbachev to stiffen his position to avoid seeming to yield to western pressure.
French officials are also treating the signs of new Soviet flexibility with great caution, emphasizing that even if Sakharov and Scharansky are released, they do not feel it will represent a signficant change in the pattern of Soviet repression at home. They apparently have passed this judgment along to the Reagan administration.
French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas spoke at length with Secretary of State George P. Shultz on the telephone within the past two days to give some initial impressions of the Gorbachev visit, these officials reported. Efforts are being made to arrange a meeting between Mitterrand and Reagan before the Geneva summit, but details still have not been worked out.
In five hours of private talks with Mitterrand and three lengthy dinner meeetings involving a number of other officials last week, Gorbachev reportedly demonstrated a willingness to discuss resolving human rights cases involving the separation of families and the cases of the two prominent dissidents in a manner that French officials found somewhat promising.
Indirectly, the Soviet leader left the impression with the French delegation that he was concerned about the image problem that the continuing detention of Sakharov in Gorki creates for the Soviet Union, according to one senior French source.
They also pointed to his public response at a press conference Friday when he said the question of freeing Sakharov and other dissidents, along with cases involving "reunion of families, mixed marriages and other matters of a humanitarian nature are being examined by the competent authorities." In a French television interview before his visit, he gave a detailed justification of why Scharansky was being treated as a criminal but was silent on Sakharov.
Soviet television rebroadcast that interview and Pravda printed a full text of the Friday press conference, and in both instances the questions and answers on Sakharov and Scharansky were included.
Tatiana Yankelevich, Sakharov's stepdaughter, denounced reports that East German lawyer Wolfgang Vogel was working for the dissident's release as an effort by the Soviet KGB to mislead western opinion. She traveled to Paris to take part in anti-Gorbachev demonstrations.