Decent people everywhere can rejoice with the families and friends of three French hostages released this week by Moslem extremists after being held captive for three years. But the release also raises questions about what price was paid.

The problem is that whenever there is a payoff of some kind, it makes hostage-taking a profitable enterprise, either in financial or political terms, and it puts any remaining victims in a situation where they may be held until some equal "arrangement" is reached.Because of this, the accepted approach by most nations is strictly one of "no deal" with terrorists, no matter what the provocation. That is the U.S. policy, with the unfortunate exception of the Iran-Contra affair. That was the stance taken by Kuwait in a recent hijacking of a Kuwaiti airliner and a three-week standoff that saw two passengers murdered.

Yet France seems to be taking a different tack. In the past two years, French Premier Jacques Chirac has managed to get 10 French hostages freed. Of the 16 remaining hostages in Lebanon, eight are American, none are French.

Chirac said France did not pay any ransom and did not deal with the kidnappers. He has refused to make any other comments on negotiations for the hostages. But the ordinary Frenchman on the street, while celebrating the release of the captives, is asking, "I wonder what he paid?"

Chirac was simply being evasive on this question. What the French did was deal with Iran, not the kidnappers directly. But dealing is dealing and the French have a reputation, as one British diplomat put this week, of "looking after their own interests in a rather selfish way."

An Iranian deputy prime minister gave the lie to Chirac's remarks by announcing that Iran interceded to free the Frenchmen because of French willingess to repay the remaining two-thirds of a $1 billion loan to France by the late shah. There also was an indication that France would move to restore diplomatic relations with Iran.

While all of this makes France look weak in confronting terrorism, it also points the finger at Iran as more than a bystander.

This is not a question of some shadowy kidnappers that no one can locate. Iran is clearly in a position to get all the hostages released. Because it does not, it is just as guilty as if it had done the kidnapping.

If the civilized world really wants to punish hostage-taking, Iran would be a good place to start. The whole world needs to put pressure on Iran over this issue.