Pas de Beaujolais, merci

As CND plans to hijack the wine race and shoppers boycott French products, Roopi Makkar reviews the effectiveness of consumer protest
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The Independent Online
Half a million people marched through London in the early Eighties to protest against nuclear disarmament and US cruise missiles. For years demonstrators staged protests against apartheid in South Africa. Now French nuclear testing in the South Pacific has brought protest to the streets once again. But how do we protest today and how effective are the methods used?

Nineties people are consumer, media and advertising sophisticates - and they kick 'em where it hurts: through consumer boycotts. This trend has never been more prominent than now, following the French government's implementation of nuclear tests in September in the face of international outcry. Since the announcement of the test programme, a boycott of French goods has gained momentum throughout Britain.

On Thursday the French wine industry celebrates one of the main events of its calendar - Beaujolais Nouveau Day. But this year's PR exercise is going to be exploited by major lobbying organisations to decrease, not increase, sales in protest at French nuclear testing.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament will be holding a boycott action day outside supermarkets throughout the country, asking consumers to fill in leaflets requesting the manager to boycott French produce. They will also be outside the main hotels and restaurants in London to greet the first cases of Beaujolais as they hit the tables, dressed up as bottles with mushroom clouds emerging from the tops.

The National Peace Council, which is co-ordinating the campaign on behalf of the British Nuclear Test Ban Coalition, will be concentrating on a spoiler for the day - it will be racing a wine bottle full of radioactive water back to Paris, contrasting with the traditional dash to bring the first Beaujolais into England.

The campaign has received celebrity backing through Storm model agency, which has published a poster featuring the likes of Michael Hutchence, Naomi Campbell, Jazzie B, and Paul and Linda McCartney, who are demanding a nuclear-free Pacific. It was shot by the photographer Regan Cameron, who has also produced a video that has been running on MTV.

Events such as this fuel the fire of publicity and, in the case of Storm, give a great excuse for a party. But when the day is over, will it all be forgotten in favour of the next big thing? Seemingly not. There has been an upsurge of local consumer action in Britain's bars, restaurants and shops.

In a recent MORI poll, 85 per cent of British people were found to oppose French testing, with one in 10 saying that they were boycotting French goods and services. Businesses were quick on the uptake: the Atlantic Bar and Grill in London was among the first to introduce a pounds 5 levy on French wines and champagne. At one time it was making on average pounds l,500 to pounds 2,000 a week on the surcharge, which was put towards a Tahitian umbrella charity called Hiti Tau, which helps environmental groups. In the past few weeks the compulsory levy has been made optional, but customers are still choosing to support it.

Likewise, the food chain Pret-a-Mangerhad stickers on its packaging stating "Nuclear-free zone in the South Pacific NOW", which it has withdrawn but is soon to reintroduce on selected products such as tuna, some of which comes from the South Pacific.

The Mean Fiddler organisation, with venues in London and one in Dublin, has gone further by prohibiting all French wines, beers and water. Others are also sticking their necks out - Manchester Students' Union passed a motion boycotting French companies and has banned French wine, beer and spirits in the bar.

But is this actually making a dent in the French economy? The trade section of the French embassy says the general trend for imports and exports has remained steady, with a spokesman venturing that "private businesses don't want to be involved with politics and are reluctant to take a stand".

Bernard Georges, export manager of Duboeuf Beaujolais, France's largest exporter of the wine, is unperturbed by the action. "Although Sweden, Norway and Finland have cancelled roughly 42 per cent of orders of French wine and Australia and New Zealand have not ordered any Beaujolais, UK orders haveincreased," he says.

At face value these responses give boycott action a slap in the face - so why bother?

Danny Thompson, a spokesman from the National Peace Council, counters: "The point is that boycott action may not have an economic impact, but it has been instrumental in highlighting the tests and the surrounding issues. The psychological aspect is just as important because France was not expecting this level of outrage from such a broad range of people."

If you do want to celebrate Beaujolais Day itself, don't count on a tasting at French venues. Cafe Provencal in Herne Hill, south London, for one, has stopped buying French goods. In past years it would have cracked open a bottle or two of the new Beaujolais. Ask for a bottle this year, however, and the answer will be a simple non, monsieur.