PARIS, OCT. 24 -- France's political establishment, displaying an extraordinary degree of harmony between the government and opposition parties, expressed elation today over the announced release of all 327 French hostages in Iraq and Kuwait -- possibly by the weekend -- and agreed that a tough, no-bargaining position had paid off.
Prime Minister Michel Rocard told the National Assembly that "France cannot but welcome this unilateral decision, which it never sought through negotiations."
France's claim to have resisted any impulse or blandishment to negotiate the freedom of French captives was echoed by Iraq's ambassador to Paris, Abdul Razzak Hashemi. He told reporters that "it was a unilateral decision by the Iraqi government" to honor France's efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.
The French government, however, has been deeply embarrassed by Saddam's clear attempts to split the global alliance against him by making conciliatory overtures to France.
Hashemi attempted today to put France and other Western states in different camps, saying, "The United States and Britain are still beating the war drums while the French position is completely different." Rejecting the notion of a general release of American and British hostages, Hashemi said, "The French have said they are favorable to negotiation and a peaceful settlement."
Meanwhile, 32 sick or elderly British former hostages arrived in London early today, accompanied by former prime minister Edward Heath, who had arranged their release on a private mission to Iraq.
But in Bonn, former West German chancellor Willy Brandt, who met with the Iraqi ambassador earlier this week at Iraq's invitation, said he would not mount a mission to Baghdad to seek the release of German hostages "at the moment" because Chancellor Helmut Kohl had asked him not to.
Families of the 400 German hostages have demonstrated in Bonn this week, demanding stronger government efforts to gain their freedom, and Kohl told the families he would do everything possible to resolve the crisis. But Tuesday night he told a television interviewer that "I am strictly against us breaking out of the international community" by undertaking unilateral efforts to free hostages.
Rocard said imminent freedom for French hostages detained by Iraqi authorities would not weaken in any way France's international solidarity in "respect for human rights, the release of all the hostages of all countries, as well as the liberation of Kuwait."
Alain Juppe, general secretary of the conservative opposition Rally for the Republic party, praised the Socialist government for its hard-line policy against any compromise with Iraq and said, "A strategy that succeeds should not be changed."
"We have nothing to be grateful for," said Jean-Francois Deniau, vice chairman of the assembly's foreign affairs committee. "This is a unilateral decision by Iraq and should remain so. It shows the embargo is beginning to work."
Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, who declared the release of French hostages to be "the fruit of firmness" in applying U.N. resolutions against Iraq, insisted that no French minister would meet Iraq's request to travel to Baghdad to retrieve the hostages. French officials said later that Georgina Dufoix, head of the French Red Cross, would be sent to underscore the humanitarian nature of the mission and to avoid any political taint in securing the safe departure of all French captives.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said that he saw positive signs in a speech by French President Francois Mitterrand at the United Nations Sept. 24, in which he declared that if Saddam would free all foreign hostages and affirm his intention to withdraw from Kuwait then "everything becomes possible" on other Middle East issues.
Mitterrand and other leading French officials have repeatedly emphasized that France is committed to enforcing U.N. sanctions against Iraq. More than 13,000 French troops and a dozen warships are now positioned in the Persian Gulf, giving France a military force in the region second to that of the United States.
Iraqi Ambassador Hashemi said, after talks at the Foreign Ministry, that he thought all of the French nationals could be flown home within the next few days. "There isn't any obstacle at this time for their return. It's simply necessary to organize it, and we are waiting for an official representative of the French government," he said.
Switzerland, which abandoned its strict neutrality policy to apply international sanctions against Iraq, announced today that it will not send legislators to Baghdad to try to retrieve the 80 Swiss nationals being held hostage.
At London's Gatwick Airport, the 32 Britons freed by Iraq arrived to a to a chorus of cheers for Heath, who has been criticized by some British politicians for having met with Saddam.
A few of those released spoke about the conditions they left behind. Most said they had been treated decently by their captors but some said they had been denied medical care.
John York, a diabetic, said he had only a few days of insulin left. He said Iraqi authorities at the installation where he had been held, a massive dam complex 180 miles north of Baghdad, had denied his requests for more. "I had set my mind to die," he told reporters.
Maureen Wilbraham, who spent weeks pleading with authorities for the release of her husband Tony, 50, a civil engineer dying of lung cancer, said officials refused to budge even though X-rays and medical records conclusively demonstrated his illness.
"They knew how ill he was. They just didn't want to let him go home," she said. "It's the men at the top who didn't care."
Heath carried to Baghdad a list of at least 70 people he said should be released. While there, the list grew to nearly 200. But despite Saddam's commitment to allow the sick and elderly to leave, Heath's staff said it had to make a case for every name. In the end, according to a British Press Association tally, 32 hostages, including two wives, flew out with Heath, plus four other Anglo-Iraqis with exit visas and five journalists.
"The Iraqi authorities decided who came out. There was no negotiation," said Jeffrey Easton, Heath's personal physician, who accompanied him on the trip and met with officials. Nonetheless, Heath declared his trip a success and predicted more hostages would be released soon.
The British government welcomed the releases, but insisted the move would not alter Britain's tough stance in the crisis. "I find it grisly and repulsive that the Iraqis should set about deciding who is so sick and who is so old that they should be released from a position no human being should face," Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd told the House of Commons.
Correspondents Glenn Frankel in London and Marc Fisher in Bonn contributed to this article.