French officials and journalists believe that President Reagan, despite his sanctions against Syria, has given an indirect but significant boost to Premier Jacques Chirac's controversial policy of dealing with and defending Syria.
Reagan did so, according to the French view, with his speech justifying American arms shipments and negotiations with Iran. To many French ears, in fact, the speech Thursday night sounded like an English echo of the many statements made by Chirac and French officials for more than a week justifying their policy toward Syria.
Some French had a measure of contempt for the twists and contradictions in U.S. policy. Even before news of the new American sanctions against Syria reached Paris, Franck Borotra, the spokesman for Chirac's political party, the Rally for the Republic, said, "People who try to give lessons in morality to others ought to sweep the dirt away from their own front yards first."
Le Monde, France's most influential newspaper, said in a Saturday editorial, "The sanctions against Syria will not dissipate the impression that the White House speaks in two languages."
Another editorial in Liberation, a highly regarded Paris newspaper, by Marc Kravetz said, "Exonerating Iran of terrorist sins and then announcing sanctions against Syria a bit later certainly does not make the American position more coherent and credible."
Kravetz, writing a day before, described the United States and France as adopting the same policy of publicly refusing to bargain while asking Iran and Syria to use their "influence" on the terrorists and kidnapers. Kravetz put the word in quotation marks because of his view that the influence of the two countries stemmed mainly from their involvement in the crimes.
Since Iran and Syria are antagonists in the Middle East, Kravetz asked sarcastically, does this mean that "soon Paris and Washington would find it more and more difficult to talk to each other?"
In a column titled "Reagan Like Chirac," Jean Daniel, editor of the news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, wrote that he now understands why, during a recent visit to the United States, he did not hear the same attacks on France from White House officials that came from State and Defense Department aides: The White House officials were up to the same thing as Chirac.
Both French President Francois Mitterrand and Premier Chirac are attending a summit meeting with African leaders in Togo. However, French officials remaining in Paris could not hide their pleasure at the way President Reagan's admissions on Iran took a good deal of pressure off Chirac.
Alain Juppe, budget minister and spokesman for the Chirac government, described the new Reagan policy in Iran approvingly as realpolitik, a policy of basing decisions on the realities of power rather than on idealism.
Juppe found French policy like that as well. "There has been no bartering for hostages," he said. "We have a historic tradition and interests in the Middle East. We have relations with the countries in the region. We have been talking with them, and we have been getting across our message to them."
Amazing Resemblance Seen
At times, the resemblance between the arguments of Reagan on Thursday night and of French officials for more than a week was almost uncanny. Just the way Chirac and his lieutenants have said that France, despite all the accusations against Syria of encouraging terrorism, must deal with the reality of Syria's power and influence in the Middle East, Reagan said that he had tried to improve relations with Iran because of its "strategic importance and its influence in the Islamic world."
Just the way the French have insisted that there has been no "bartering" for hostages, Reagan insisted that "we did not--repeat, did not--trade weapons or anything else for hostages."
A few hours before Reagan spoke in Washington, Denis Baudouin, Chirac's press secretary, discussed French dealings with a Syrian government that many suspect of involvement with the northern Lebanese bombers who terrorized Paris two months ago in a wave of violence that killed 11 people and wounded more than 150.
"We have negotiated with the Syrians," Baudouin said, "to tell them that we have suspicions about some terrorist networks, and that these terrorist networks are surely installed in regions that the Syrians control, and that we would hold them a little responsible if they did not exercise better and a little more firm control over these networks."
Must Reject Terrorism
In a somewhat similar vein, President Reagan said that, while delivering arms to Iran, "we made clear that Iran must oppose all forms of international terrorism as a condition of progress in our relationship. The most significant step which Iran could take, we indicated, would be to use its influence in Lebanon to secure the release of all hostages held there."
French officials have emphatically denied that they have shipped or contemplate shipping any arms to Syria or that they provide it with any economic aid. In the case of Iran, the French government is about to sign an agreement to start repayment of a $1-billion loan made to France by the late Shah of Iran, and the Tehran authorities have promised to use their influence to gain the release of French hostages held in Iran. But French officials insist that the agreement and the promise are coincidental.
While proclaiming that no price was paid for the two French hostages released by Lebanese Shia Muslim kidnapers to Syrian officials Monday night, France did feel forced for days to defend a Syrian government that has been widely condemned for its role in the abortive attempt to plant a bomb aboard an Israeli airliner in London last April.
Only 'Some Syrians'
Under pressure from Britain, France joined other foreign ministers of the European Communities in voting for mild sanctions against Syria, but the French insisted that they were voting for the condemnation of "some Syrians" and not the government.