The Israeli raid on the French-built nuclear reactor in Baghdad had confronted France's new Socialist government with its first major foreign-policy challenge in the Middle East.
Not only does it put President Francois Mitterrand in a bind over relations with Israel and Arab wolrd, but it also comes at an inopportune moment with the country caught in the midst of vital legislative elections.
Shortly after the news was announced on Israeli radio, Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy strongly condemned the attack by describing it as an "unacceptable and serious act which can only aggravate the tension" in the Middle East. Mauroy added that the French government did not intend to pursue a policy of armament in the world and expressed a desire for a greater reinforcement of nuclear controls.
Reiterating an earlier campaign statement by Mitterrand, the Prime Minister said his administration would reexamine the Franco-Iraqi nuclear contract not only because of the Israeli attack, but also because France has no wish to be locked in a situation that would only contribute toward an "already difficult and explosive" situation.
This, however, totally contradicts a previous assertion by Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson that France would respect all international agreements made during the administration of former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
"This illustrates the fuzziness of Mitterrand's foreign policy," noted one Western diplomat. "The incident will undoubtedly force the government to state its position much sooner than it would have liked."
Unlike Giscard's often blatant pro-Arab policies, Mitterrand said he would seek a more balanced approach toward the Middle East by improving relations with Israel. Although some Jewish political groups in France feel the President has begun to retreat form some of his pro-Israel electoral promises. Prime Minister Mauroy significantly stressed that the attack would not affect Mitterrand's proposed trip to Israel. With its date yet to be announced, the visit would be Mitterrand's first to a foreign country since taking office May 21.
At least one French engineer was killed during the raid. According to Foreign Ministry officials here, some 100 French technicians were working on the Osirak reactor at the Tamuz experimental nuclear center 25 kilometers outside Baghdad.
Contrary to Israeli government reports, the French expatriates were working Sunday although most had finished duty and had gone back to their quarters -- only 500 meters away -- at the time of the attack. (In Iraq, as in all Muslim countries, Friday is the Sabbath but foreign missions and companies operate normally on Sunday.) The French government now is in the process of evacuating all but a skeleton staff of technicians.
In a further contradiction of Israeli reports, the French maintain that of the two reactors at the $250 million center, the first 70-megawatt reactor was unscathed. The second, a 800-kilowatt reactor containing no fuel and therefore not radioactive, was seriously damaged.
In 1975, France and Iraq signed a nuclear energy cooperation agreement for "peaceful purposes" only. The Baghdad regime agreed to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of which it is a signatory as well as allow the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect its facilities. In return France sold Iraq the two reactors.
Although the Giscard administration claimed that Iraq would adhere to international controls, many critics both at home and abroad considered the agreement as unnecessarily provocative. In July 1980 France agreed to supply Iraq with extremely high-grade (93 percent) uranium for the reactors. An outraged Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin denounced this as a "very grave development."
One French engineer substantiated Israeli fears by admitting that the Iraqis could probably produce their own bomb within a year if international precautio ns were not heeded.