As Michael Kinsley pointed out all those years ago (1984, in fact), “a ‘gaffe’ occurs not when a politician lies, but when he tells the truth.”

So it was on Monday, when French president Jacques Chirac unburdened himself to journalists from The New York Times and Le Nouvel Observateur on the subject of Iran.

It was supposed to be an interview about the environment, but a discussion of nuclear energy led naturally enough to talk of Iran’s nuclear program. As Chirac said (this is the Times’ translation; the original is here):

[T]here are first of all two different problems: nuclear power for electricity and nuclear technology for military purposes. What worries us in Iran, it’s not electro-nuclear (nuclear energy) as such but uranium enrichment.

… what is dangerous about this situation is not the fact of having a nuclear bomb — having one, maybe a second one a little later, well, that’s not very dangerous. But what is very dangerous is proliferation. …

Where will it drop it, this bomb? On Israel? It would not have gone 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed to the ground.

Chirac is 74 and in indifferent health; his term of office expires in May. But on this evidence, his powers of analysis are undiminished. He’s absolutely right about Iran: possession of a small nuclear arsenal on its own would be of no use whatever to it. The deterrent capacity of Israel, to say nothing of the US, would be enough to ensure that.

But the contrast with official French (and American) policy was sufficiently great that Chirac had to summon the journalists back the following day to clarify his position, and ultimately to “withdraw” some of his previous remarks – “I should rather have paid attention to what I was saying and to understand that perhaps we were ‘on the record’.”

Both the president’s office and prime minister Dominique de Villepin issued subsequent statements stressing that France’s Iranian policy was unchanged.

The affair will however be a major embarrassment for Chirac’s centre-right party in the lead-up to presidential elections. Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal has been under attack recently for her inexperience in foreign affairs.

But as Royal’s adviser (himself a former presidential hopeful, with the wonderfully un-French name of Jack Lang) said:

What would people have said [if Royal had made such statements]? Incompetence, folly, irresponsibility? Well, I apply those words to the head of state and to his delegate in the campaign, Mr Sarkozy.