Former president Charles de Gaulle once explained that France does not recognize regimes, it recognizes states.

This distinction undergirds back-to-back visits to France this week by Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi. Jiang left Tuesday after five days in France, and Khatemi arrived this morning for a three-day stay.

The human rights records of China and Iran have turned the visits into stages for street protests and an impressive French security operation that included blocking anti-Khatemi protesters at the border and predawn arrests of Iranian dissidents today.

Critics of China and Iran have attacked the French government for according the two leaders pomp and circumstance. The daily Le Monde called the Jiang visit "degrading for France."

But there is little question that President Jacques Chirac and the French government are relishing the opportunity to burnish France's position as a major league power and, French leaders say, as a force for reform.

By embracing the Chinese and Iranian leaders, France stands to gain in several ways: as a trading partner, as a diplomatic intermediary and as a credible alternative to what Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine calls "the hyperpower," the United States.

France has long cut an independent figure among the major democracies, notably by nurturing close ties to Arab states, including Iraq, as a counterpoint to perceived closeness between the United States and Israel. Since Chirac took office in 1995, France has sought to strengthen commercial as well as political ties in Asia, all in an effort to cultivate new markets and especially friendship with a nascent superpower like China.

"This is normal French diplomacy," said a Western diplomat here. "These visits play up to their paradigm, which is to have a voice on every issue of consequence in the world."

Chirac invited Jiang and his wife, Wang Jing, to spend last weekend at his estate in the French heartland. The memorable image was of Jiang dancing cheek to cheek with Bernadette Chirac, France's first lady.

In a reciprocal gesture of good will, Jiang announced that China would buy 28 Airbus passenger jets from the European aerospace consortium.

A clash of cultures nearly scuttled the visit by the Iranian president, whose representatives balked last spring at the prospect of a French state dinner that included wine. Alcohol is proscribed in Islamic tradition, but apparently required in French tradition.

So negotiators ultimately recast the Khatemi state visit as "an official invitation extended by the President of the Republic," obviating the need for a "state" dinner. To wash down the food provided by their French hosts, Khatemi and his aides will be served "refreshments," according to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne Gazeau-Secret.

Khatemi is the first Iranian president to visit France since the 1979 revolution. Since his election in May 1997, he has raised the possibility of a new openness in Iran. Khatemi is reportedly shopping for a $1.5 billion loan that Iran desperately needs. Iran has already awarded oil and gas contracts to French companies Elf and TotalFina, and on the eve of Khatemi's visit, France's Alstom Transportation Inc. said it had won a $200 million contract to build locomotive engines for Iran.

Khatemi is also pursuing the normalization initiatives that already have warmed Iran's relations with the European Union and led to the lifting of the Iranian government's declaration of a death sentence against British author Salman Rushdie.

French officials said human rights issues were on the list of topics to be taken up with Khatemi. They referred specifically to the fates of 13 Iranian Jews arrested as Israeli spies and to student protesters detained without charges in Tehran in July.

"The defense of these just causes will certainly not advance if we were to renounce holding talks with President Khatemi, who was elected . . . against the most archaic elements of the Islamic revolution," Vedrine told the National Assembly.

Dominique Moisi, of the French Institute for International Relations, said the Jiang and Khatemi visits "look alike--they seem to be about the triumph of realpolitik over human rights concerns." But he said they are very different under the surface.

"By receiving Khatemi, France is expressing hope for the future, for a more moderate, realistic, open Iran," Moisi said. "By receiving Jiang, France is accepting the fact that China will not and cannot change in the foreseeable future."

CAPTION: During a meeting of French and Iranian presidents in Paris, rights activists protest Iran's jailing of 13 Jews on charges that they spied for Israel.