Long live France, and down with Greenpeace!

The French covered the protests over nuclear testing in the South Pacific with a blend of patriotism and paranoia, says Stephen Jessel
When news that France had exploded a nuclear device in the south Pacific arrived in Paris shortly before midnight on Tuesday (via Reuters, which scooped the home news agency AFP by a couple of minutes) staff at the left-wing daily, Liberation, had enough time to change the front page of most editions. A composite portrait of President Jacques Chirac and the melted face of a Nagasaki survivor stared out at the paper's readers. It was a devastating cover, but while Liberation was not alone in regretting the test, it was, none the less, fairly isolated in its outright condemnation.

Sections of the French media, including much of the national press, reacted with an unlovely blend of petulant bravado, paranoia and self-pity to the storm of international protest that broke across the world, from Finland to Chile and from New Zealand to Belarus. The silence of the British government, by contrast, was widely noted and praised. The protests over the test and the rioting in Tahiti that followed were, to read some comment, nothing more than a squalid conspiracy engineered principally by Greenpeace with the backing of Pacific Rim states.

The Nantes-based Presse-Ocean set the tone. "Who finances Greenpeace and its flotilla and takes care of its crews' board and lodging? Ecologist movements, say those involved ... Would it not be more honest for the generous benefactors to drop the mask of hypocrisy and identify themselves? With, in the front row, Australia, New Zealand and, probably, Japan as well ... The hostility of the Australians can be explained less by their nuclear fears than by the presence of the French flag on the atolls of the South Pacific."

But the tone of the regional press, a much more important source of news and comment in France than in Britain, was generally more reflective. Editorials wondered whether the motive for the resumption of testing was not more political than military, reflecting Chirac's wish to assert his Gaullist credentials, and debated the role of nuclear weapons in a post- Cold War world.

Greenpeace must be flattered by the degree of consensus in large sections of the French press over the extent of its influence. France Soir, which, although it is a broadsheet, is as near to a tabloid in its style and presentation as the French press gets, informed its readership in a front- page headline that the world-wide protests were orchestrated by the organisation.

In the circumstances, Greenpeace's admission that it had produced erroneous figures in its campaign against the dumping in the Atlantic of the Brent Spar oil platform was too good a weapon to ignore. The London office of at least one respected French news organisation, normally credited with a certain objectivity, had little hesitation in reporting that the admission of the mistake disqualified Greenpeace as a serious contributor to the debate over the testing.

Loyalist newspapers such as Le Figaro praised Chirac, the test, and the resolution of the French government, sometimes running articles that took the form of straightforward transcriptions of government statements larded with sycophantic comment. One even praised the openness of the French government in announcing that the test had taken place, as if needles had not been bouncing on seismographs all over the Pacific region.

Le Figaro did acknowledge protest within France after the test; but a rally which attracted several thousand people, including many senior figures on the left, was reported on page 33 with about the same prominence as a story (characteristically several days old) about a 12-year-old who had stolen from his parents and treated himself to a luxury holiday at Disneyland, Paris.

The level of protest in France was relatively muted, even though an opinion poll suggested that 59 per cent of the population opposed the resumption of testing. Partly because the country relies so heavily on nuclear-generated power, and partly because successive governments have assured the French people that the grandeur they so crave depends on ownership of nuclear weapons, France, unlike Germany or Britain, has never had a strong anti- nuclear movement. Politicians on the left are uneasily aware that they had nothing much to say in the 11 years of Mitterrand's presidency preceding the 1992 moratorium, during which scores of tests took place.

The military authorities had learnt from the public relations catastrophe that surrounded their earlier violent seizing of a Greenpeace vessel and TV stations were supplied with carefully vetted pictures from Sirpa, the defence ministry's sophisticated public relations arm, though many crews were on hand to record their own pictures of the rioting in Tahiti.

Predictably, some local politicians blamed the presence of foreign reporters and crews for the violence in Tahiti, in an echo of Chirac's recent suggestion that if the media paid less attention to the current wave of terrorist attacks in France things might improve, which itself recalled Margaret Thatcher's famous dictum on "the oxygen of publicity" afforded to the IRA by media coverage.

Indeed, the French government displayed an unusual sensitivity to foreign media criticism, putting up the foreign minister, Herve de Charette, at a news conference to read a statement on the harmlessness of the tests in English for the benefit of foreign radio and TV stations. It is hard to imagine what terms De Gaulle would have used about a French minister seeking to justify the policy of la France to the Anglo-Saxons in their own language.

The nuclear test last week at Mururoa was codenamed Thetis after a sea nymph, wooed by two Greek gods, who lost interest when she was told that her son would be more powerful than his father. The son, eventually fathered by a mortal, was Achilles, whom Thetis dipped in the river Styx (the boundary of the underworld) to make him immortal, neglecting to submerge the heel by which she held him. Achilles' heel was his downfall; he was wounded there by an arrow from Paris (son of Priam, king of Troy, not the capital of France) and died. There's a moral there somewhere.