The Soviet Union on Saturday expelled six French citizens--four diplomats and two business executives--in retaliation for the expulsion of three Soviet diplomats from France last Thursday.
An announcement on Soviet television said the six were ordered out for "activities incompatible with their status," the diplomatic euphemism for spying charges.
The French action came in connection with the arrest of seven persons, including one Soviet citizen, on charges of spying on the French-built Ariane rocket engine. Moscow has contended the allegation of Soviet involvement in the Ariane case was "ridiculous." A Soviet deputy air attache in Paris, Valery Konorev, and two other Soviet diplomats were ordered to leave France following the accusations in the Ariane case.
The series of expulsions, which could be followed by additional French retaliation in Paris to even up the numbers, could jeopardize the scheduled visit here in May of French Premier Jacques Chirac.
It amounted to the worst setback in Franco-Soviet relations since the French expelled 47 Soviet diplomats for spying in 1983. Surprisingly, there was no retaliation by the Kremlin at that time.
French Ambassador Yves Pagniez was summoned Saturday to the Foreign Ministry to hear a strong Soviet protest against Thursday's expulsions by France.
"A resolute protest was made to him in connection with the provocative action against a number of Soviet representatives in France," the Tass news agency reported.
"Without any reasons, unfounded charges without any proof were brought against them. . . . The Soviet side regarded these actions . . . as an openly unfriendly act, obviously of a political nature, aimed at poisoning the atmosphere of Soviet-French contacts," the news agency added, concluding:
"Responsibility for the inevitable negative consequences of this action rests with the French side."
Two of the diplomats, Second Secretary Yves Delaunay and Capt. Pierre Laperet, an assistant military attache, were ordered to leave within seven days, along with Patric Chebroux, manager of the Moscow office of a French aeronautics export firm.
Two other diplomats, Counselor Pierre de Bruchard and Cultural Attache Anita Davidenhoff, and Serge Berlot, manager of the Franco-Soviet Chamber of Commerce, were told that they must leave by an unspecified later date.
The controlled Soviet media have focused on the arrest of a Soviet citizen, Ludmilla Varyguine Verdier, in what they have called "a spy-scare campaign." She is married to French civil servant Pierre Verdier, who also has been accused of taking part in the alleged spy ring.
Tass said she was arrested March 17 and held until April before representatives from the Soviet Embassy in Paris were able to see her in prison.
"For 12 hours without interruption, she was interrogated with the use of blackmail, threats, intimidation and the most brutal forms of psychological pressure," Tass said.
Varyguine was released Friday on condition that she remain in France and report twice a week to a magistrate in the case.
The crisis in relations between Paris and Moscow contrast with the friendlier ties the Kremlin established during the visit of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.