PARIS — In 1981, Israeli bombers swooped over Tamuz near Baghdad in Iraq and destroyed the French-built Osirak nuclear reactor there. The reactor had been sold by France under a pro-Iraqi policy that many French believe was fashioned in large part by Jacques Chirac during his first term as premier.
But Chirac, again premier of France, denies now that he had anything to do with the sale of the reactor to Baghdad. His denial has aroused a good deal of skepticism, provoked cries that he is rewriting history and raised suspicions that he is courting French Jewish voters in an unannounced campaign for the presidency.
There is little doubt that the controversy has far more to do with campaign politics than with the history of French policy in the Middle East. The incident is a case study, in fact, of the subtle maneuvering by French politicians these days as they prepare for a presidential election scheduled for 1988.
Chirac had been so identified for years with France's pro-Iraqi policy that nationalists in Iran, the enemy of Iraq, mock him by pronouncing his name "Shah-Iraq." Some Israelis who believed that the reactor would have enabled Iraq to produce a nuclear bomb added their contempt by calling the Osirak nuclear reactor "O-Chirac."
Yet Chirac, in a story just published in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, is quoted as saying: "It wasn't me who negotiated the construction of Osirak with Baghdad. The negotiations were led by my minister of industry in very close collaboration with President (Valery) Giscard d'Estaing.
". . . I never took part in these negotiations. I never discussed the subject with (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein. The fact is that I did not find out about the affair until very late."
Contradicted by Giscard
Chirac acknowledged that, if he had been informed, he would have approved the sale, but his version of events contradicts an account by Giscard published two years ago. Some analysts believe, in fact, that Chirac is trying to enjoy a long-delayed revenge.
In the original salvo two years ago, Giscard, a possible rival of Chirac in the coming election, told the French Jewish magazine L'Arche that the sale of the reactor to Iraq "came out of an agreement that was not negotiated in Paris and therefore did not originate with the president of the republic." Those words seemed to put full responsibility on Chirac.
Chirac's attempt to deny responsibility was picked apart by the Paris newspaper Liberation under a headline, "When Jacques Chirac Rewrites History."
1975 Tour Recalled
Liberation noted that Chirac took the visiting Saddam Hussein, then vice president of the Iraqi revolutionary council, on a tour of a French nuclear plant in September, 1975 and announced, "Iraq is in the process of beginning a coherent nuclear program, and France wants to associate herself with that effort in the field of reactors."
The words hardly seemed to support Chirac's claim that he never discussed the reactor with Hussein and knew nothing about the sale.
To add to Chirac's discomfort, Michel d'Ornano, the minister of industry named by Chirac as the real negotiator, described his role differently.
According to Chirac, D'Ornano took charge of the negotiations while accompanying him to Iraq. But D'Ornano said he never even took a trip to Iraq with the premier. The former minister said he conducted negotiations but always in close cooperation with the Foreign Ministry, the prime minister's office and the presidency.
Never Met Arafat
In his newspaper interview, Chirac tried to please the Israelis even more by stating that he personally does not support the creation of a separate Palestinian state and that it is no accident that he has never met Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. These assertions contradict French foreign policy, which has consistently supported the self-determination of the Palestine people.
Although the French government has been slowly moving away from Iraq and toward closer relations with Iran in hopes of winning freedom for French hostages held by pro-Iranian factions in Lebanon, Chirac's need to set old records straight and to woo French Jewish voters obviously comes from the nearness of the presidential election.
The election, although scheduled for 1988, could come earlier if President Francois Mitterrand decides to precipitate it by resigning.
Most analysts now believe that Chirac, a conservative, and Mitterrand, a Socialist, would be the leading candidates. But French presidential elections have two rounds, and the first is usually a kind of free-for-all. Giscard is regarded as a possible rival of Chirac for rightist voters in the first round.
Small Jewish Population
The Jewish population of France is relatively small--an estimated 650,000 out of a total population of 55 million--but Chirac obviously does not intend to give up French Jewish votes by default.