Chirac quashes rumours over nuclear testing

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in Paris

Any French decision to resume nuclear testing will be taken by President Jacques Chirac personally and will be announced to the French people before any tests are carried out, according to Charles Millon, the French Defence Minister.

Mr Millon, who has the task of conducting an urgent review into the pros and cons of a resumption, made his statement yesterday after unsubstantiated reports that a decision to resume tests had already been taken.

They surfaced after France's left-of-centre daily newspaper Liberation said on Tuesday that a working group chaired by Admiral Jacques Lanxade, the chief of general staff, had recommended a resumption of tests to restore the credibility of France's nuclear deterrent.

France, together with the United States, Britain and Russia, halted underground nuclear tests in 1992 by mutual agreement.

The reports that new French tests were imminent prompted a political storm in France, not just from left-wing politicians, but from those worried about the message it sent abroad, especially to non-nuclear countries who have just agreed to extend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It soon became clear, however, that the report cited by Liberation had been commissioned in 1993 by President Francois Mitterrand and the then prime minister, Edouard Balladur, and been subsequently shelved. It had nothing to do with Mr Chirac.

However, Mr Chirac did include in his presidential election manifesto an undertaking to consider conducting ''a few nuclear tests'' - a pledge thought to reflect pressure from military specialists in his support group who thought France had halted testing prematurely.

They apparently argued that the moratorium had cost France dear, because its ability to simulate nuclear tests lagged behind that of the United States and Britain.

Significantly, the brief given to Mr Millon by the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe - who opposed a resumption when he was Foreign Minister - is to consider whether further tests are really necessary and also the state of France's technological capacity to simulate tests.

On Wednesday, Mr Chirac let it be known that any decision to resume tests would be taken by him alone, and that there would be no resumption ''before the summer''. The leaking of the 1993 report may have been a piece of politicking by sections of the French military.