Paris — For Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, it was like coming home. As a young man, Mr. Peres worked out of a small office in the French Defense Ministry on Rue St. Dominique as he assembled the Israeli military machine. Following those heady days of the 1950s, French-Israeli relations deteriorated into angry polemics in the 1970s.
But Wednesday Mr. Peres came back to Paris, the first official visit here by an Israeli prime minister in 20 years - thereby increasing speculation that Europe may yet play a key role in a new Mideast diplomatic offensive.
The signs are intriguing. French President Francois Mitterrand visited Syrian leader Hafez Assad in Damascus last week and is expected to report to Peres over lunch Thursday. At the same time, Egyptian Foreign Minister Butros Ghali has been in Brussels trying to drum up European support for an international Middle East peace conference. And Jordan's King Hussein and Israeli's defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, were reportedly both in London, but they were not expected to meet.
Still, officials here warn against expecting any immediate dramatic European initiative. Just like the United States, France and Britain suffered heavy losses in Lebanon last year. Both European countries are wary about involving themselves once more in that troubled country's affairs. Suggestions that French and British troops might fill the security gap in south Lebanon if the Israelis withdraw meet with pained ''we will sees.''
''The initiatives for peace must come from the region, not from us,'' says a French Foreign Ministry official.
''But if we are asked,'' he added, ''we are willing to help.''
Peres may want just that help. Since taking office three months ago, he has called repeatedly for direct meetings with Arab leaders, in particular with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's Hussein. Paris, he told the French newspaper Le Monde just before he arrived here, might help arrange such meetings.
''Thanks to her contacts in the Middle East, France can play an important and constructive role in the search of peace,'' Peres said.
Looking to Paris and Europe in general, instead of to Washington, represents a new Israeli attitude. Haunted by the Holocaust, Menachem Begin would not accept European advice.
And while Mr. Begin's successor, Yitzhak Shamir, moved to improve relations, his anger over the European Community's 1980 declaration in Venice calling for the participation of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the peace process never totally subsided.
In contrast, Peres takes a longer view. He has worked with the French for nearly a quarter of century.
When France supplied most of Israel's arms in the 1950s, Peres came here to buy them. When then-Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion visited French President Charles de Gaulle here in 1960 and 1961, Peres served as translater.
After the 1967 six-day war, De Gaulle abruptly ended all arms shipments to Israel. Throughout the '70s, France angered Israel by cultivating Arab oil producers and Arab markets for its exports, even selling jet fighters to Libya and a nuclear reactor to Iraq. The Israelis destroyed that reactor in 1981. But even as official relations deteriorated, Peres retained his strong French contacts, especially those with Francois Mitterrand. The two men became close friends as members of the Socialist International.
These relations have been strengthened by Mr. Mitter-rand's efforts to repair relations with Israel. In March 1982 he became the first French President ever to visit the Jewish state. Since then, 10 French ministers have traveled to Israel, forging stronger commercial and scientific ties between the two countiries.
Mitterrand ''has remained a true friend of Israel, '' Peres told Le Monde.
''A true friend'' does not translate into total agreement. Mitterrand's positions differ significantly from those of Peres. While the Frenchman favors inclusion of the PLO in any Mideast negotiations and is not hostile to an international conference including the Soviet Union, the Israeli has rejected categorically both proposals.
Wherever he has traveled - to Jerusalem, to Cairo, to Amman, Jordan, or to Damascus, Syria - Mitterrand has said the same thing. The existence of Israel must be recognized and its security assured, and at the same time the Palestinians have a right to ''self-determination.''
''We talk with everyone in the region,'' says the French Foreign Ministry official. ''That gives us some credibility.''
Will that mean an arbitrating role?
''If there are initiatives, we are willing to help,'' he says. ''Voila.''