A nation out of tune with the rest of the world

FRENCH TEST FALLOT France has exploded not just the seabed, but its self-image, says Mary Dejevsky

To be editor of a French news organisation yesterday must have been an unenviable job. There was looting and burning in Gauguin's Pacific paradise of Tahiti; two of the most idyllic islands in the French Caribbean had been devastated by hurricane Luis, and almost everywhere else on the globe was throbbing with virulent anti-French protests following France's first nuclear test for three and a half years.

Even in mainland France there was the prospect of mayhem to come as mollycoddled public-sector workers spoke of their fury and frustration at being told to accept a pay freeze next year. Widespread labour unrest looms for the winter.

All this in the space of a few days has been a rude shock for France and for the French, who are used to thinking of themselves and their country as quiet, cultured, self-contained and utterly irreproachable, whether in appreciation of the better things of life or in observance of universal values such as freedom and human rights.

Their tranquil existence might have been interrupted periodically by farmers' protests and occasionally by a student revolt, but these were home-grown distractions; they did not seriously challenge France's view of itself or the world outside. Most particularly they did not challenge France's sense of its own superiority; they even helped to confirm it. Their farmers' produce might be more expensive, but it was better; their students might be rioting, but revolution was a French prerogative necessary to the renewal of the social order.

This time, though, it is precisely this sense of national superiority that is being attacked. From Tokyo to Washington, from Sydney to London, there are placards of President Chirac with a Hitler moustache; French wine is being poured into dustbins. The nation that thought of itself as having attained the height of civilisation is being portrayed as barbaric. What is more, France has had to pay heed.

Yesterday the defence minister, Charles Millon, managed in one short set of remarks to call for respect for law and "the republican order" in Tahiti, to offer talks with pro-independence groups there, to pledge more troops to the island, and to insist that France would proceed with "seven or eight nuclear tests" for the sake of French "and European" security.

The contradictions in his remarks clearly derived from the need he saw to address several different groups of people: the rioters on an island which is constitutionally part of France, the law and order lobby in mainland France (which is most of his party and many others besides), the defence establishment, and the outside world. Where once a haughty "no comment: France will do what France must do" might have sufficed, this is clearly no longer so.

So what has happened to France? The short, superficial answer to this question is: Jacques Chirac. In four months, France's new president has given politicians the world over a lesson in how not to win friends and influence people. His decision to resume nuclear tests as almost the first act of his presidency is only the most egregious of his essays in statesmanship.

It may be true, as Mr Chirac has contended, that he had no choice about the timing of the announcement or the timing of the tests, as both were dictated by the need to complete the series in time to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty next year. His apparent assumption that France could avoid being put in the world's dock because it was France and because French nuclear tests were somehow more justifiable than other people's tests, however, showed a serious misunderstanding of the current mood in much of the post-Cold War world.

As his falling ratings in domestic opinion polls show, even his own voters are not quite sure what they have let themselves in for. They elected him to tackle what he, and they, saw as their growing social problems, unemployment and, above all, divisions in society. Now they find themselves pilloried for their nuclear defence policy not only from predictable quarters, but by countries as remote from France in every respect as the Philippines and Chile.

It is not only France's nuclear defence policy, however, or even the fact of the nuclear tests that is being pilloried, but France's insensitivity to what the rest of the world thinks. The rioting in Tahiti was inspired, as Oscar Temaru, the leader of French Polynesia's small independence movement, put it, by "humiliation, frustration and anger".

French officials may argue that the violence was deliberately instigated, as well it may have been, but this does not alter the fact that hundreds of Tahitians were out on the streets looting and burning, that their anger was directed against the French authorities, and that hundreds more were watching them without protesting.

Nor does it alter the fact that a single decision by the president of France, which has been widely judged - as one French commentator put it - "out of harmony with the age", has at a stroke inspired thousands of consumers worldwide to boycott French goods; harmed - probably for a very long time - France's prized diplomatic role, especially in the Far East and Australasia, but probably also in many parts of Europe; and last but not least, immeasurably strengthened an anti-colonial movement in a remote part of the world that is none the less an integral part of France.

The increasingly defensive statements from French officials in the past two days have shown that Tuesday's nuclear test at Mururoa atoll exploded more than a hunk of basalt seabed. It exploded many of France's favourite assumptions about itself and its place in the world: its embodiment of civilised values, its consummate practice of the diplomatic arts, its role as a paternal and benevolent colonial power; above all, its confident nationalism.

Mr Chirac has talked often about a sovereign and independent France. The purpose of his nuclear test series, he insisted, was to ensure French security and preserve that independence. But global communications and global agitation, whether by environmental groups or others, mean that the policy of almost any national government is now circumscribed. No country with international aspirations can escape the judgement of public opinion; not just its own, but that of the many other countries with which it maintains diplomatic and economic relations.

So, Mesdames et Messieurs, and Monsieur le President de la Republique, welcome to the real world! You have taken your time arriving.

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