PARIS -- France's policy on arms sales abroad has always been a rigorously lucid one: the more the merrier, whether the government in charge is conservative or leftist. The first tipoff in 1981 that the newly elected French Socialist government was going to be more French than Socialist came in fact when it decided to give jobs at home in defense industries a higher priority than striving for international harmony.

A secret Army report on French arms shipments to Iran shows just how far that policy went. While providing Iraq with the most sophisticated nonnuclear weapons in its arsenal, the French government was also tolerating the shipment of around 500,000 high-caliber artillery shells and explosives to the Iranians between 1983 and 1986.

The report establishes that the Socialists' decision to overlook these exports grew out of official concern that nearly 1,000 jobs would have been otherwise lost in the factories run by the Luchaire company. The report also makes vague and unsubstantiated suggestions that the fraudulent arms trade provided commissions to Socialist Party operatives who put some of this money into party coffers.

The notion of an "Ayatollah PAC" helping the Socialists is dominating the headlines here as major chunks of the report leak daily into the French press. The disclosures are seen as a harbinger of the presidential elections next spring, with the opponents of Socialist President Francois Mitterrand clearly hoping that the mud of the scandal will splash onto him and help them win the presidency.

But a careful reading of the entire report, which was commissioned by the conservatives and is classified "Defense Confidential," shows that its importance lies elsewhere. It documents how a highly centralized government goes about the same kind of foolishness within the system that our own free-wheeling Lt. Col. Oliver North was pursuing out of channels about then. The Iran-contra affair echoes through l'affaire Luchaire.

Once again the cover-up becomes as important as the action. The Defense Ministry committees that "review" arms exports calmly wave through end-user certificates that carry phony destinations for shipments actually going to Iran. A ship loaded with 203-mm shells for Thailand is approved, even though Thailand has no weapons that use such shells. When a junior official points out that Ecuador seems to be buying more 155-mm shells than it can possibly ever use, he is apparently persuaded otherwise by his superiors.

French intelligence agencies that have not been cut into the action quickly come across the operation and start asking questions. Spymaster Adm. Rene Lacoste takes his concern all the way to Mitterrand in a meeting on May 21, 1984, and is told simply to talk to Defense Minister Charles Hernu. This wonderfully enigmatic response is the Mitterrandian equivalent of President Reagan's forgetting what he may have known and when he may have known it.

The shells undoubtedly were important to Iran's land offensives against Iraq. But in contrast to the Iran-contra affair, France does not appear to have exported sophisticated weapons on the order of TOW and Hawk missiles to Iran -- perhaps because France's multibillion-dollar contracts with Iraq establish strict limits on what can be sold to other countries in the region.

The report is silent on the question of whether the Socialists also sought to use the arms shipments as part of their efforts to win the freedom of French hostages being held in Lebanon. It is hard to believe that the arms-for-hostages card was not at least flashed at some point in the negotiations, either by the French or by the Iranians.

Authoritative sources have concluded that the French arms merchants were dealing with the same group of Iranians who were at the other end of North's line. In the most direct echo of the Iran-contra affair, the idea persists in some government circles here that there are relative moderates in the Tehran regime who want better relations with the West.

Such hopes underpin the secret contacts that the conservative government of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac continues to have with Iran. The contacts reportedly are making progress on ending the blockade that the two countries imposed on each other's embassies in July, and may even bring some good news soon on the fate of some of the five French and eight American hostages in Lebanon. That at least is the November Surprise scenario being talked about here right now.