Bomb test protesters besiege French embassy

Australian passions are running high on France's plan to resume nuclear trials, writes Robert Milliken in Sydney
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The Independent Online
The fallout in the Pacific region over France's plan to resume nuclear testing deepened yesterday when demonstrators tried to storm the French embassy in Canberra, the Australian capital, and police confirmed that the fire which earlier destroyed the French consulate in Perth had been deliberately started.

More than 300 people chanting "France out!" demonstrated outside the Canberra embassy as public antipathy in Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific nations rose over President Jacques Chirac's decision to conduct eight underground nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll, in French Polynesia, between September and May .

Police arrested three people as a group of protesters broke from the crowd and swarmed into the embassy grounds. At the same time, a large crowd of French residents in Australia held their own demonstration against their government's plan outside the French consulate in Sydney, waving placards denouncing Mr Chirac and calling on Paris to abandon the tests.

Gareth Evans, the Australian Foreign Minister, is leading a delegation from the 15 member countries of the South Pacific Forum which is due to have talks today with Herve de Charette, the French Foreign Minister. The Pacific countries will condemn the tests and ask for the decision to be reversed, but their protests are likely to fall on deaf ears.

A little-known group calling itself the Pacific Popular Front has claimed responsibility for the fire which destroyed the French consulate in Perth in the early hours of Saturday. Police were still investigating the claim yesterday.

The destruction of the consulate has been condemned on all sides but the events at the weekend are a measure of the passions which the French decision has unleashed. Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, said: "The deliberate destruction of property is not part of the Australian way of life, and must be rejected on every occasion." Stephanie Mills, the nuclear testing campaign co-ordinator for Greenpeace International, said the destruction of the consulate was "outrageous and counter-productive".

Dominique Girard, the French ambassador in Canberra, made a thinly veiled attack on Australian politicians, apparently linking their protests over the tests to the Perth fire saying: "The Embassy regrets the unnecessarily excessive positions that have been taken in the past few days, which could have directed ill-informed persons to commit the criminal act that has just taken place in Perth."

Over the past few days, several French nationals have complained to Australia's Anti-Discrimination Board that they have been subjected to abuse and insults since a storm of protest erupted in the Australian media following Mr Chirac's announcement. One French resident of Perth, the capital of Western Australia, told a Sunday newspaper: "Most of us have dual citizenship and have always admired the tolerance and goodwill of Australians. Many of us have lived here for a long time and most of our friends are Australians. This has completely destroyed our morale. We now feel threatened, despite the fact that we have no part in the decisions made by the French government on the other side of the world."