"When you have the responsibilities of a nuclear power and when your best scientific advisers tell you that more tests are needed, I am not sure that you have much choice," Mr Major said in an interview with Le Monde. "I am certain Mr Chirac did so only because he was convinced it was necessary. I don't think criticising France is the best way to attain our long-term goal, which is the prohibition of all nuclear tests."
Elsewhere, the news that France had launched its latest test - creating a shock the size of an earthquake registering 5.6 on the Richter scale - brought only criticism and dismay. The Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, said the test further damaged France's international reputation, and his government delivered a formal protest. Russia noted the test "with regret". And Belgium - normally an ally of France - voiced its criticism. "The Belgian government notes with great regret the third French nuclear test," the Foreign Ministry said. "We have repeatedly protested the testing," said the Japanese Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama.
Jim Bolger, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, said the testing would be an issue at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting next month in Auckland. Britain's silence over the French tests has been noted with disapproval by Commonwealth members in the Pacific.
But Britain is trying to build a new alliance with France over European matters, starting with defence. Today, Mr Chirac arrives in Britain for talks with the Prime Minister before the two launch a new Franco-British air group, which is intended to cement military co-operation between the two countries.
"Two world wars and the Cold War have solidified our relations with France, but some differences are inevitable," Mr Major told Le Monde.
He emphasised that this was not part of the creation of a new European armed force, however. "I do not favour a permanent structure or a common European strategy [for European defence]," he said in the interview.
The Prime Minister used the interview to stress his commitment to Europe. "I have specifically said that our destiny was in Europe and that we will play a constructive role in building its future," he said.
But he warned that this did not mean a centralised Euro-state. "I don't want what we have accomplished so far to be threatened by proposals to create a federal state in Europe. It would be politically and constitutionally unacceptable," he told the French paper.
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