The President and government of France tried yesterday to preserve a small centre of calm and normality as a veritable tornado of global condemnation swirled around them, prompted by France's first nuclear test for three- and-a-half years.
By the end of the day, however, the scale of the diplomatic and probably commercial damage to France caused by President Jacques Chirac's decision to break the 1993 moratorium could not be disguised.
Protesters marched, burned French flags and chained themselves to French embassies worldwide as anger flared over the test blast. The terminal at Tahiti's international airport outside the capital, Papeete, was set on fire, with hundreds of passengers still inside the building, after French riot police responded with tear gas to a demonstration by hundreds of Tahitians. French authorities raced to evacuate the passengers from the smoke-filled terminal and escort them to a military base. Two French police were injured, and the airport was closed after the runway was blocked with canoes, rocks and coconuts.
The Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, called the French test "an act of stupidity" and said that "with every test they conduct, the good name of France will be diminished in this part of the world". New Zealand and Chile recalled their ambassadors from Paris, and the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru suspended diplomatic relations with France altogether. Britain reacted cautiously to the tests, as did Germany. The Foreign Office called the French testing "a matter for them, and for them to justify. We understand the concern the decision has caused in a number of countries".
Senior members of the French government, including Prime Minister Alain Juppe, and the Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, professed themselves "unsurprised" by the reaction, but only the head of Mr Chirac's own RPR party, Jean-Francois Mancel, could bring himself to praise the test as "conforming with the higher interests of the nation" and "necessary to guarantee our security and independence".
Le Monde newspaper, which prints in the afternoon in Paris, said yesterday that the global condemnation might force President Chirac to reduce the number of tests. In a television interview on Tuesday, Mr Chirac had spoken of between "six and eight" tests, and said that the results were more important than completing a particular number.
Mr Juppe went on French radio early in the morning to say that he found the international reaction "sometimes a little hysterical". Later, he repeated France's proposal that its nuclear deterrent might be "placed at the service of the European Union" for the defence of Europe. In a sign that the consumer boycotts could be starting to bite, however, he warned that breaches of contract would be contested by France through the World Trade Organisation.
Mr de Charette took the highly unusual step of personally issuing a statement in English for the benefit of the foreign press, in which he said he was "shocked" by the nature of some of the anti-French demonstrations, and by the participation of Japanese and Swedish government ministers in protests in Tahiti. He stressed the "unprecedented transparency" with which the government was treating the tests.
nForeign Office calls French test 'a matter for them'
nAustralian Prime Minister calls it 'an act of stupidity'
nJuppe says international
reaction is 'sometimes a little hysterical'
nFaced with boycott threats, Juppe says breaches of
contract will be contested via World Trade Organisation
nChirac says France will show 'absolute firmness', in carrying out tests and in
defending its interests
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