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French discouraged over hostages' fate. Some question Paris's use of conciliatory Mideast approach

Every night on French television, just before the evening news, pictures of the French hostages in Lebanon flash on the screen. Under the photos appear the number of days each has been held. To French policymakers, it is a reminder of one of the most difficult and emotionally explosive foreign policy problems the government faces.

This week especially, with news of American David Jacobsen's release Sunday, there was widespread disappointment here that none of the French hostages seemed similarly near to freedom.

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The fate of the seven Frenchmen in Lebanon weighs heavily on the minds of French politicians already looking to the 1988 presidential elections, analysts here say. French officials had hoped that their recent moves to normalize relations with Iran - which has ties to radical groups in Lebanon - would bring the release of the hostages.

But the public here is beginning to question the strategy the government is using to gain the freedom of its captured citizens.

``In trying to do too much, will Paris become the only country from which the hostage-takers and their silent Iranian partners hope to make political gains?'' asked the daily, Le Monde, this week.

Two French hostages were released by Islamic extremists last June, shortly after an Iranian opposition leader left France under French pressure. But since then, there has been no visible progress.

In September, the Islamic Jihad (``holy war'') group renewed its threats, making conflicting demands. Islamic Jihad is believed to hold at least three of the hostages, including Embassy officials Marcel Fontaine and Marcel Carton who were kidnapped more than 18 months ago, in March 1985.

``We're working with the means that we have,'' says one French official. ``But we want to avoid having the hostage-takers make exaggerated claims.'' Analysts here speculate that last week's French-Iranian agreement for France to repay a $1 billion Iranian loan has not been signed because the French are waiting for some ``gesture'' from the Iranians involving the French hostages before they hand over the first installment of $330 million.

But with three Americans already released by Islamic Jihad this year, some French wonder if the US method of dealing with the problem - little publicity and top secret talks - might not be better.

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``I'm for the American attitude,'' says Mary Seurat, wife of French hostage Michel Seurat, who was reported killed by Islamic Jihad last March. ``The Americans show firmness publicly and negotiate much more discreetly.''

The campaign for the hostages' freedom has been in the limelight here are partly due to the efforts of Joelle Kauffmann, wife of journalist Jean-Paul Kauffmann, who has been held captive for the last 18 months. She has run a highly visible campaign, and has urged the French government to negotiate directly with the hostage-takers.

``I reproach the French government for refusing to negotiate with the hostage-takers,'' Mrs. Kauffmann says. ``I think we have to go to the base. We only negotiate from state to state. With the TWA hijacking, the US didn't negotiate officially with the hostage-takers, but things happened all the same.''

However, some French officials cite Israel's release of several hundred Lebanese Shiite prisoners shortly after the TWA hijack as evidence that US did indeed make an indirect ``deal'' by exerting pressure on Israel.

The French predicament appears thornier because of the changing demands of Islamic Jihad. The demands of the hostage-takers have ranged from freeing 17 imprisoned Muslim extremists in Kuwait, to releasing Middle Eastern prisoners in French jails, to changing French policy of supporting Iraq in the war against Iran.

The French preoccupation, sources say, now is not to allow a gradual release of hostages so that the price of freedom increases with each release.

But the tack of normalizing relations with Iran may be long and hard. And it is uncertain if even that can bring about the hostages' release. Last January, the former Socialist government reportedly arranged a deal with Iranian help to exchange Lebanese prisoner Anis Naccache, who is held in a French prison for the attempted murder of a former Iranian prime minister, for the French hostages. But at the last moment, the hostage-takers apparently changed their minds.

``The French already cut a deal last January, and the Iranians couldn't deliver,'' says one Western diplomat. ``The Iranians may be the closest ones to these people, but they're not necessarily running the show.''

An additional complication, analysts say, is the fact that several different groups - all with their own demands - are believed to hold the seven French hostages.

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