The ministry said later the proposal was made in jest. But Serge Trigano, the president of Club Med, was unfazed. "Why not?" he asked cheerfully, "if the French authorities offer it to us." After a pause for reflection, however, the sober businessman in him emerged: "For the moment, we have no plans in the region. But we could have a look."
In a more definite attempt to reverse the tide of criticism against its decision to resume tests, France yesterday proposed that the comprehensive test ban treaty - due to be signed next year - should outlaw all further testing of whatever type.
The proposal for an all-embracing test ban was tabled by French representatives at the Geneva disarmament conference, and accompanied by a strong publicity pitch from Paris for foreign and domestic consumption. As it stands, the draft treaty would ban nuclear tests above one kiloton, leaving open the possibility that the nuclear powers could continue to conduct weaker tests after the end of 1996. Some observers believed that the purpose of at least some of the French tests this autumn was to develop a smaller nuclear weapon.
Yesterday's change of position by France seems to have been designed specifically to scotch this speculation and to please Australia, which has long pressed for the test ban treaty to be total. Having been informed in advance of the French proposal, the Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, was quoted as saying that it was "very important" and "exactly the kind of pledge we had wanted from the French government".
The propaganda onslaught mounted by France over the past week has served only to emphasise the depth of the hole it has dug for itself. French officials have tried several times to relaunch three of the main points of President Jacques Chirac's original pronouncement: that the planned series of tests would be the last, that France would sign the test ban treaty in the autumn of 1996, and that new uses would be sought for the South Pacific test site and for the nuclear missile centre in southern France. But they are still drowned out by the simple message from the opposition - a message France cannot deny - that France is to resume nuclear testing.
The Europe Minister, Michel Barnier - who as a former environment minister appears to have been landed with the nuclear damage limitation portfolio - was ridiculed earlier this week when he suggested that France might conduct only seven rather than the maximum of eight tests initially proposed. The idea that Club Med might take over Mururoa atoll may well suffer the same treatment.