Three freed French hostages returned to France today after three years of captivity in Lebanon, and Premier Jacques Chirac thanked Iran for intervening to free the Frenchmen.
He said normal relations with Iran, broken July 17, "could be envisaged."Interior Minister Charles Pasqua told reporters that no money was paid to free the hostages and that France did not negotiate with the terrorists.
Diplomats Marcel Carton, 62, Marcel Fontaine, 45, and journalist Jean-Paul Kauffmann, 44, arrived at the military airport of Villacoublay in a special government jet after a stop on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica. They were freed Wednesday evening in Beirut.
"It's an incredible day," Kauffmann said, looking thin but healthy. "But it's also a day which remains overshadowed because we are just three."
Kauffmann then spoke at length about Michel Seurat, the French researcher captured with him who is believed dead. Kauffmann said earlier that Seurat, said to have been executed by his kidnappers, probably died of cancer.
"I'm a little ashamed to be here today," Kauffmann said. He then recalled Western hostages still being held in Beirut "leading that nightmare life."
Carton said the three saw other hostages, but did not know who they were.
Chirac, in a short address, also thanked Syrian President Hafez Assad and Lebanese military authorities for their help in gaining freedom for the hostages, who were held by pro-Iranian extremists.
"As we all know, the liberation of our hostages falls into the framework of our relations with Iran," Chirac said. "It's the authorities in Tehran who intervened with the captors so that they free our countrymen." He said that France had been awaiting the releases "for weeks and for months."
Chirac, evoking questions about the means by which the hostages were freed, said the government "never ceased to act with dignity and honor."
Commentators immediately raised the issue of a deal and began speculating about what allegedly transpired. Ten French hostages have been freed since Chirac's government took office in March 1986.
In response to questions from reporters, Pasqua said: "We have not accorded any funds of any sort to anyone, not a franc, not a dollar, not a deutschmark, not a yen."
"There were no negotiations with the captors," he continued. "I think that would have been completely useless."
A spokesman said Foreign Minister Jean-Bernard Raimond will meet with ambassadors of Britain, France, West Germany and Italy to brief them about the how "the liberation of the hostages came about."
There were reports in Beirut that France agreed to repay Iran's fundamentalist rulers the outstanding two-thirds of a $1 billion loan made by the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Also unclear was what effect, if any, the release might have on Chirac's chances in Sunday's presidential runoff against President Francois Mitterrand. The Socialist president, who is seeking a second seven-year term, has been considered the heavy favorite.
The hostages arrived at the airport at 10:37 a.m. (4:37 a.m. EDT).
Carton's wife, Denise, left Beirut today to join her husband in Paris. Mrs. Carton, accompanied by two unidentified women, boarded a Middle East Airlines jet for Zurich via Rome, airport sources said.
"As soon as the detention of our hostages in Lebanon ended, the reestablishment of normal relations between France and Iran could be envisaged conforming to our concept of what rapport between states should be," the premier said.
France and Iran broke diplomatic relations last summer amid a controversy over an Iranian Embassy employee, Wahid Gordji, who refused to submit to questioning about the series of bombings in Paris in September 1986.