PARIS, JAN. 7 -- President Francois Mitterrand promised today to give personal attention to Iranian refugees recently expelled from France, and his wife, Danielle, visited hunger strikers who are demanding the refugees' return.
The gestures by Mitterrand and his wife are expected to have little immediate effect on the expulsion orders, handed down Dec. 8 by Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's government against a group of anti-Khomeini militants. But the president's move drew attention to an increasingly embarrassing situation created by the expulsions, which came 10 days after two French hostages were released in Beirut as part of a deal with Iran.
The Interior Ministry announced at the time that the Iranians were expelled because they represented a threat to public order. Most Frenchmen assumed, however, that the expulsions were part of a reward to Iran for its role in winning freedom for the hostages.
During an earlier effort to normalize relations with Iran in 1986, Chirac forced the departure to Baghdad of a leading Iranian dissident, Massoud Rajavi, head of the People's Mujaheddin, a leftist underground group backed by Iraq.
Mitterrand made the pledge, his office said, during a meeting at the Elysee Palace with Jean-Pierre Hocke, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. Hocke requested the talk to express concern for the Iranians, who have been held in the former French colony of Gabon since they were rounded up by police here and put on a plane to West Africa.
Hocke told reporters afterward that he was "comforted to know that Mr. Mitterrand accords his full support, particularly in reaffirming his desire to abide by the law and the respect of international conventions of which he is the guarantor."
A total of 17 persons were expelled to Gabon, according to Iranian exiles. Three were Turkish Kurds and 14 were militants of Rajavi's Mujaheddin group, they said.
Behzad Naziri, a Mujaheddin spokesman, said two of the Iranians had refugee status in Britain and Sweden, where they returned. The 12 remaining, along with one of their wives, have been on a hunger strike in Libreville, the Gabonese capital, to press their demand to return to France, he added.
In addition, members of their families left in France have been staging a hunger strike in front of the Paris office of the U.N. High Commission on Refugees. Naziri said about 40 persons have consumed only tea and sugar for 31 days, and seven are hospitalized.
Other Iranians connected to the Mujaheddin have been on hunger strikes in London and Washington, seeking to draw international attention to what they denounce as a French violation of the right of political asylum.
Danielle Mitterrand received a delegation of the Paris hunger strikers' families in the framework of her France-Liberty Foundation, an institute devoted to promotion of human rights. Later she visited the strikers in front of the U.N. offices and in their hospitals.
A recent poll in the progovernment newspaper Figaro showed 45 percent of Frenchmen questioned believe Chirac gave too much to Iran in exchange for the hostages. Besides the expulsions, Chirac agreed to resume payment on an outstanding debt to Iran and arranged the swift departure of an Iranian official wanted for questioning in a terrorism case.