Hours before French nuclear testing was due to start in the Pacific, President Jacques Chirac said yesterday that France would be willing to make its nuclear deterrent part of a European Union defence system if that was wanted in the future.
He also called on French diplomacy to go on to the offensive to "explain, explain and explain indefatigably" France's position on nuclear testing "in the belief that finally, reason will overcome emotion".
Mr Chirac was addressing French ambassadors from all over the world gathered in Paris for a three-day conference. The gathering was convened shortly after Mr Chirac announced his decision to resume nuclear testing starting today and is taking as its theme the nuclear issue.
The President made a forceful defence of France's nuclear deterrent - which, he said, had "retained all its sense" - and his own decision on tests. Appearing to address criticism that he had mistimed the decision and underestimated the damage his decision would do to France abroad, Mr Chirac's insisted that he had been aware of the likely consequences and "had taken personal responsibility for them". The situation he had inherited, he said, had left him no choice about whether, or when, to resume testing.
On the question of "Europeanisation", Mr Chirac said: "As it builds its defence, the EU could want the French deterrent to play a role in its security. When that moment comes, France will embark on an initiative on this with its principal partners."
In announcing France's willingness to consider sharing its nuclear deterrent, Mr Chirac was giving his name to a proposal that has been floated in recent weeks by his prime minister, Alain Juppe, and his foreign minister, Herve de Charette, without any significant international response. The exact terms of such a project, however, have not been spelt out.
It is not known, for instance, whether it would mean sharing technology and facilities (and the expense), whether other European countries would be given a say in when the weapons were used, or whether it simply means that the EU would be protected by the French "nuclear umbrella" - a situation that differs little from the present one.