Nuclear warfare has broken out between France's two main political parties 11 days before the first round of a presidential election, with a woman known as Atomic Anne launching a strike on President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Anne Lauvergeon, a former top aide to Socialist President Francois Mitterrand ousted as head of French nuclear group Areva last year, accused Sarkozy of having tried to sell an atomic reactor to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi until mid-2010.
The state, which was supposed to be responsible, was supporting this folly, she told weekly magazine L'Express in an interview. Imagine, if we had done it, how it would look now.
Government spokeswoman Valerie Pecresse, a member of Sarkozy's conservative UMP party, responded by accusing Lauvergeon of trying to settle scores. She described the former CEO's account of dealings with Libya as fictitious.
She should have resigned if she had been against it. She did not do so, so that is all fiction, Pecresse said, without explicitly denying that Sarkozy had tried to sell a reactor to Libya for a water desalination plant.
The president has been pounding Socialist challenger Francois Hollande for months over an agreement with the ecologist Greens party to reduce France's dependency on nuclear power if the left wins the election. Under the deal, the share of electricity produced by nuclear power would decline to 50 percent in 2025 from nearly 80 percent today.
Sarkozy has visited nuclear sites to underline his support for France's atomic industry, posing for photographs surrounded by nuclear workers in overalls and hard hats.
Lauvergeon, 52, tipped as a possible minister if Hollande wins next month's runoff, told L'Express she had objected vigorously to Sarkozy's drive to sell Gaddafi a reactor.
Gaddafi, who ruled Libya for 42 years, was overthrown and killed last October by rebels backed by NATO air strikes in which France played a leading role.
In the interview, Lauvergeon also said Sarkozy had offered her a cabinet seat when he was elected in 2007 but she had refused. He recruited a handful of other Socialists including humanitarian campaigner Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister.
He wasn't so much putting together a government as recruiting a film cast, Lauvergeon said.
Relations between the two deteriorated to the point where Sarkozy blocked her reappointment as chief executive last June and Areva initially withheld her 1.5 million euro severance pay in a dispute over the botched $2.5 billion takeover of Canadian uranium mining start-up UraMin.
The Economy Ministry eventually approved the payment last month after Lauvergeon won a court order against the company and an internal audit at Areva cleared her husband of any suspicion of a conflict of interest in the UraMin deal.
The inquiry concluded that Areva had overpaid and badly managed the acquisition of UraMin's three African mines in the midst of a boom in nuclear energy demand that spurred a frenzy to secure supplies. It found no proof of fraud.
The battle has taken on a political dimension with the Socialists openly questioning the future of Henri Proglio, a close ally of Sarkozy, as CEO of state-controlled electricity giant EDF if they win the election.
Is the person who has said that implementing Francois Hollande's programme would cost hundreds of billions,... inflating the figures beyond all realistic proportion, best placed in terms of credibility? senior Hollande ally Michel Sapin told Reuters in an interview.
Lauvergeon said Sarkozy had made a string of errors, organising a clan system in the nuclear sector, including the appointment of Proglio.
This system touted low-end nuclear abroad and proposed transferring our global intellectual property rights to the Chinese and selling nuclear in countries where it was not reasonable, she told L'Express.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Alexandria Sage; Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Janet McBride)