France today strongly condemned Israel's bombing of a French-built nuclear power plant in Iraq and announced that the attack killed a French technician working there.
Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy indicated, however, that the new Socialist government will hesitate about replacing the plant, set up under the preceding administration. While this suggestion seemed likely to please Israel, Mauroy called the effects of the attack "unforeseeable" on Franco-Israeli relations and French diplomatic sources warned that it could delay the warming widely expected under President Francois Mitterand.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman who announced the technician's death said no other Frenchmen were hurt. But the ministry appeared to treat the attack as a major crisis and top officials met late into the night with Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson. Ministry officials announced that Israeli Ambassador Meir Rosenne had been summoned to the Foreign Ministry Tuesday to hear "the government's concern about the death of a French citizen."
Contrary to an official Israeli statement that the raid was timed for a day of the week when foreigners normally do not work at the site, French sources said French technicians in Iraq follow the Moslem work week, taking Friday off, and thus are present in large numbers on Sunday. The raid came in the early evening and that is what avoided more casualties, the sources said, adding that damage was heavy.
About 150 French technicians are reported to work at the plant. They were withdrawn early in the Iranian-Iraqi war last fall, after an earlier raid acknowledged by Iran that did little damage. A small volunteer crew stayed behind to watch over the French-provided enriched uranium, and it was announced about six weeks ago that most of the French technicians and their families had returned. This evening the government said all remaining technicians whose presence is not essential are to be withdrawn.
In earlier violence connected to the Iraqi project, key parts for the facility were blown up while awaiting shipment in a warehouse on the coast of southern France near Toulon in 1979 in sabotage attributed in published reports to Israeli agents. A year later an Egyptian-born nuclear scientist working on the Iraqi project was murdered in his Paris hotel room and last August the Rome offices of an Italian company also working on the reactor were damaged by a mysterious bomb attack.
[In Rome, the Italian government expressed grave concern about the Israeli raid but added that none of the 20 Italian technicians working there for Italy's Snia-Techint company was hurt.]
The Baghdad facility also was raided early in the Iran-Iraq war by two Phantom F4 fighter-bombers, a U.S.-supplied plane that Israel and Iran fly. There was intense speculation that that raid was conducted by the Israelis. But Iranian President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr later said the planes were Iranian.
Privately, French officials expressed bitterness about what they said was Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's obvious lack of regard for the difficulties he had created for France by Sunday's raid. The French officials said Begin's decision was a compaign maneuver in the Israeli elections scheduled in three weeks. The French noted that by attacking the inefficiently defended nuclear facility near Baghdad, Begin had taken the easy way out since an attack on the Syrian antiaircraft missiles that have sparked the latest Middle East crisis would probably have led to heavy Israeli losses.
France is also in the midst of an important election campaign. Soon after winning the presidency May 10, Mitterrand dissolved the lower house of parliament for general elections to be held this Sunday and next. The leader of Mitterrand's Gaullist opposition, Jacques Chirac, was instrumental as prime minister of an earlier government in arranging the $260 million Franco-Iraqi nuclear deal that was signed in 1975.
The Foreign Ministry recalled that the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency had made one of its periodic inspections of the Baghdad facility at the beginning of the year and found everything to be normal there. Iraq, a signer of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, had last fall blocked the agency's inspections temporarily because of the war with Iraq, but they have sinced resumed.
Before the Iranian-Iraqi war, Iraq was France's main Middle East oil source. The new French government had gone out of its way to reassure Arab governments that its expressed friendliness to Israel did not mean that Paris wanted any deterioration in relations with the Arab world.
The Iraqi center had become a major political issue in France even before the Israeli attack. Posters and advertisements showing an atomic blast were a major feature in a campaign by Jewish groups hostile to former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing because of his policies judged as pro-Arab. The posters called on Jewish voters to "punish him" in the presidential elections.
Mitterand, on the other hand, has cultivated the image as a friend of Israel while calling on the Israelis to be more accommodating about recognizing Palestinian rights. Mitterrand is especially close to Israeli Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, a fellow-member of the Socialist International and Begin's opponent in the Israeli elections.
Mauroy said tonight that the Israeli raid "on foreign soil" was "unacceptable and very serious." He said it could "only increase tensions" in the region and "complicate a very explosive situation."
He said France would study any Iraqi requests to rebuild the center but that a decision would be made in light of the new French Socialist government's determination gradually to take France out of the "international arms sales business and to avoid nuclear proliferation."
The Baghdad facility included two reactors -- a small research reactor that had already gone critical with French-supplied uranium fuel. It was not damaged by the Israeli raid, the Foreign Ministry said in a communique issued late tonight. The damage was centered on the larger power reactor due to become operational this summer, the ministry said.