How France lost the battle of Mururoa Atoll

Nuclear test: Despite Chirac's attempts to justify yesterday's explosion, victory in propaganda war was handed to pressure groups
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The Independent Online


"But the Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, conducted 86 tests," said the French defence minister, Charles Millon, on a recent television programme. Exasperated by condemnation of the mere "six to eight" tests planned by Jacques Chirac, you could almost hear him wanting to add: "and there wasn't all this fuss about it".

From the day of the decision to restart the test programme until last night, when the first went ahead, the French Government has both underestimated the international opposition to its decision and misunderstood it.

It was not only Mr Mitterrand, Mr Chirac's predecessor, who conducted tests. It was Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Georges Pompidou, and, right at the beginning, Charles de Gaulle, with his determination that France should have its force de frappe. Recent French presidents have supported France's nuclear deterrent and nuclear tests that went with it, and the argument - De Gaulle's argument - that nuclear weapons allowed small countries to stand up to bullying from bigger ones, and that France should never again have to suffer foreign occupation.

In France, that acceptance has been almost unconditional for the nearly 40 years: defence, including nuclear defence, was not an issue. Abroad, France's nuclear status has been considered a little quirky but its historical reasons were respected. Suddenly, in 1995, despite a newly-elected president of the right who won a clear majority and sees himself in the tradition of De Gaulle, that comfortable situation is no more. Even if Mr Chirac had not been counting on universal goodwill towards his test programme, he probably did not reckon with the reception that met his statement of 13 June that France would restart its test programme.

One immediate reason for his difficulty was the coincidence of two highly emotive anniversaries soon afterwards: on 10 July, the 10th anniversary of the death of a Greenpeace photographer in Auckland harbour when French secret agents blew up the Rainbow Warrior, and, on 6 August, the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

These two anniversaries helped to keep Mr Chirac's decision in the news, but in using strong-arm tactics against the Rainbow Warrior's successor on the very eve of the anniversary, France hardly helped itself. It handed Greenpeace a propaganda victory and gave further impetus to a campaign which was already mustering a coalition made up of anti-nuclear campaigners, ecologists, pacifists and those of an "anti-colonial" disposition in South- east Asia and the South Pacific.

France, and President Chirac in particular, appear to have underestimated the strength of these trends, but especially the coalition between the ecological and the anti-nuclear movement represented by Green- peace, which is now - in contrast to 10 years ago - a powerful and professional organisation.

France also had little appreciation of the power of environmental groups to mobilise a consumer boycott. The Greenpeace campaign against Shell over its plans to dispose of the Brent Spar platform had hardly affected France.

The other major oversight by Paris was not to appreciate the strength of opposition to the tests from people in the South Pacific, not only because of possible contamination, but because it smacked of "colonialism". In Australia and New Zealand, the sense of national sovereignty, self- confidence and regional responsibility has increased considerably over the past 10 years. But so, it appears, has anti-colonial sentiment in French overseas territories, including the South Sea islands. French commentators have noted with surprise in recent weeks how Mr Chirac's nuclear test plans have fuelled demands for independence.

What Mr Chirac also seemed to underestimate, however, was the degree to which his decision to resume testing would be questioned in France. At the outset, it is true, it was hardly challenged except from the ecologist margins. But successive opinion polls showed that while a clear majority of French voters supported the policy of maintaining a nuclear deterrent, more than 60 per cent thought the decision to resume testing was a mistake. Even ministers of the Gaullist government seemed reluctant to defend their country's position in public. Almost for the first time, it seemed, international opinion had made people see their country in another light.

By the beginning of August, the French government had belatedly embarked on a campaign to limit the damage. Its theme was "transparency". Information came thick and fast: environmental effects, past tests, defence considerations, trips to the South Pacific.

With France's first nuclear explosion for three years about to be detonated beneath the South Pacific, the protestors still occuppied the high ground almost unchallenged. This first explosion will revive a campaign that was just starting to lose momentum, and it is hard to see what Mr Chirac can do now except tough it out and try to complete the test programme early.

Timetable of French tests

October 1945: Charles de Gaulle orders creation of atomic energy commission.

February 1960: France carries out first test of atom bomb in central Sahara. Followed by 16 blasts by 1966.

April 1963: De Gaulle forms national atomic force.

August 1963: French refuse to sign nuclear arms test ban treaty in Moscow.

July 1966: First test carried out in lagoon of Mururoa Atoll.

August 1968: First thermo- nuclear test of a hydrogen bomb above Fangataufa Atoll.

June 1973: France ignores International Court order to stop tests in atmosphere.

June 1975: After 41 atmospheric tests in Pacific, France conducts first underground experiment at Fangataufa.

May 1981: Francois Mitterrand elected president, but maintains line on nuclear tests.

July 1985: French sink Rainbow Warrior.

June 1991: France says it is joining nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

April 1992: Mitterrand suspends nuclear tests for year.

June 1995: President Jacques Chirac says France will conduct tests in the Pacific from September 1995, and will then unreservedly sign test ban treaty.