The strength of the French franc has already resulted in substantial price hikes and a reaction against French wines in countries which have weaker currencies. But the threat of a widespread international boycott of French wines provoked by the current nuclear weapons testing at Mururoa atoll is perhaps the darkest cloud on the horizon.
The first bombshell in fact exploded unexpectedly on French television news at the end of August in the form of a dramatic ad run by the British Nuclear Test Ban Coalition, an alliance of British peace groups. The 30- second advertisement, "Day of the Jacques", shows a bottle of French wine being enjoyed by a Jacques Chirac lookalike through the sights of a rifle. When the marksman shoots, the bottle shatters and spills "blood" as the narrator intones: "Hit them where it really hurts. Drop a bomb on Chirac's plans. Boycott French wines."
In the Languedoc region, where I have just spent a couple of weeks, the reaction was potent. Believing incorrectly that the ad had received wide coverage on British television, Jean Huillet, president of the area's powerful Co-operative Cellars Federation of Herault, accused Britain of spreading provocative propaganda. Rumours spread like Mediterranean hillfire that French growers would take to the streets, smash bottles of Scotch whisky and harass British tourists. The federation has since denied any intention of using violence, but confirms it will claim compensation from the French government for lost orders.
Despite the furore provoked by the advertisement in France (it was aired on Channel 4 news last week), protest groups are divided over whether a boycott of French wines is the right tactic. Ulrich Jurgens, Greenpeace International's campaigns director, issued a statement indicating that Greenpeace were not in favour of boycotting private sector products because "we don't want to hit the small shopowner or the French people, most of whom oppose the tests".
Whether because of these divisons or because of general apathy, the boycott of French wines has been slower to gather momentum in Britain than in a number of France's other important markets overseas. The most vociferously anti-nuclear protests to date have been in Denmark, Holland, Germany and Sweden, the latter causing a 40 per cent drop in French wine imports, according to Sweden's National Peace Council. Although less important for France in export terms, Australia, New Zealand and the developing markets of the South Pacific have dropped French wines like a stone.
France is desperate to play down the effects of the boycott, but a dossier on cancelled and suspended orders kept by the Paris HQ of the French wine and spirit exporters association, FEVSF, is mounting. According to Louis- Regis Affre of FEVSF, "the impact on exports to date is less than one per cent of the 35Fr billion export trade affected", but this could still amount to a substantial pounds 40 million, or more.
While aware that their wines are an obvious target for protesters overseas, the majority of French growers are incensed at what they consider to be unfair treatment. "French wine has been targeted," Mr Affre says, "because it has a much higher international profile than a bag of corn, a bottle of scent or the compartment of a train. It's illogical, it's disloyal and it's dangerous. Wine is a product meant for enjoyment. To boycott it is tantamount to hostage-taking."
At Tain L'Hermitage in the northern Rhone, the firm of Chapoutier, which runs on biodynamic principles, has confirmed losses of 1.4Fr million (pounds 190,000) as a result of cancelled orders in Australia, and the suspension of orders in Germany, Denmark, Japan and New Zealand. "I am appalled by this latest initiative, with its potentially disastrous consequences for small growers," wrote Michel Chapoutier in a letter to Jacques Chirac.
James Herrick, an Englishman in partnership with two Australians in the Languedoc, has lost pounds 200,000 worth of orders to Australia and New Zealand. "Most people here are saying that the way France has gone about it is politically inept, but I do think the punishment should fit the crime. If the UK boycotted James Herrick Chardonnay, I'd go out of business overnight. It would be a hollow victory. I just hope that the British will retain their famous sense of fair play."
With a small wine estate in the Roussillon region near Spain, Paul and Annie Favier are against the nuclear tests. "What's the point? France has been involved in all the test ban negotiations, but apart from China, we're the only country still going ahead." They sympathise with the boycott, but cannot see how it can succeed when "most of the syndicats [growers' organisations] support Chirac. And Chirac has 90 per cent of right-wing FNSUR [the national federation of agricultural associations] in his pocket."
With further nuclear tests planned between now and the end of May 1996, there are justified fears within the French wine industry that a lengthy boycott could do lasting damage. At a time when the New World is increasingly encroaching on French wines overseas, export markets painstakingly established may take many years to restore. In Britain, French wines already account for only three out of every ten bottles consumed compared to more than four out of ten only six years ago. Frere Jacques, dormez-vous?