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De Gaulle's offer the territories can't afford to refuse

FRENCH TEST FALLOUT Analysis Independence movements may flex their muscles, but, says R W Johnson, they are unlikely to succeed
When Algerian independence was being negotiated, the toughest obstacle to agreement was President Charles de Gaulle's attempt to insist that France should keep the unoccupied wastes of the Sahara. At first the Algerians assumed the reason lay in the recently discovered oil and gas riches below the sands, but de Gaulle was willing to cede these. He wanted the Sahara, it emerged, so that France could test its nuclear weapons there. "France cannot be like Britain and explode its bombs in Nevada," he said. "In any case, how can one have nuclear independence if one relies on another country even to test one's weapons?"

There could have been no better illustration of the central position the force de frappe occupied in Gaullist theology - time, money and lives were lost as the deadlock dragged on.

However, the Algerians were unmoved by such arguments, which is how, in the end, France came to place its nuclear testing ground at Mururoa in the South Pacific. Now, 35 years later, the chickens are coming home to roost not only in the wave of unpopularity that the resumption of French nuclear testing has caused right across the Pacific but in the major fillip the issue has given to the independence movement in French Polynesia.

The sight of Foreign Legionnaires being flown in to Papeete airport in Tahiti - where the airport buildings have already been destroyed by anti- nuclear demonstrators - will merely confirm in the public eye the fact that French tests are being carried out as an act of force majeure. The unrest has also thrown into sharp relief France's continuing colonial role in New Caledonia and French Polynesia, and has seen both Australia and New Zealand sound a distinctly sympathetic note to the pro-independence demonstrators.

It would be ironic indeed if France's decision to locate its tests in an area where its hold seemed secure merely had the effect of undermining its colonial tenure.

Ironic, but unlikely. The same Gaullist ideology which makes it impossible for Mr Chirac - the first Gaullist president for 21 years - to climb down without dishonouring the shade of the General, is also the reason why France is able to hang on to a string of overseas possessions, the departements et territoires d'outre-mer, the so-called Dom-Tom. These include not only Polynesia and New Caledonia but Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion, Mayotte, St Pierre et Miquelon, Djibouti, Wallis and Futuna, among others.

For the General was proud of the French tradition of integration with its colonies - deputies from Senegal and Algeria had sat in French parliaments even under the Third Republic; French Equatorial Africa declared for de Gaulle in 1940 and gave him his only real and much-prized base; and Houphouet- Boigny, the Ivory Coast leader, even served in the French Cabinet that launched the Suez expedition in 1956.

When, to the General's regret, most French colonies chose independence in 1960-61, de Gaulle hastened to secure the Dom-Tom, the deal being essentially that residents of any of these territories are full French citizens, with the right to settle in France if they want, and that France guarantees them in their own territories the same social security, pensions and welfare levels that they would enjoy in France. This is ultimately an offer which very few Polynesians, say, or Martiniquais, can refuse.

This is why independence movements in the Dom-Tom never get very far and why even revolutionaries who gain power in them (such as the Marxist poet, Aime Cesaire, in Martinique), always decide to stick with France in the end.

It is also why Oscar Temaru, leader of the anti-nuclear protest in Tahiti, popular though his cause may now be, won only 15 per cent for his pro- independence party in the last elections. For independence would not only be sentimentally unacceptable to many in the Dom-Tom, but it would mean a sharp drop in their standard of living and a sudden end to their ability to enter France - and thus the EU - as full citizens.

Politicians in Australia and New Zealand who would like to encourage the independence movements in these territories should think hard about the implications. In the end they can only make independence attractive if they step in to pay the subsidies that France does now and guarantee unfettered rights to immigration. Nothing less will do, and even this would merely substitute Australian colonialism for French.

President Chirac is, of course, well aware of this and is rather cruelly reminding Polynesians that if they want the privileges of the French connection, they must pay the price for it, too. But this is not to say that Chirac can afford to act with impunity. Politically, the resumption of testing has already been a diplomatic disaster for France and it could also cost Chirac a lot of Dom-Tom votes in the next election (Polynesia went heavily for him last time). And in any case it is impossible to deny not Polynesian demands for independence (which will surely not succeed) but their demands to be treated as proper Frenchmen. Proper Frenchmen, who live in the Dordogne or the Auvergne, they point out, do not have nuclear bombs exploded under their noses; nor should they.

The logic is unanswerable, which is one reason why Chirac has already had to accept that these will be the last ever such tests at Mururoa. The number of tests has, moreover, been quietly reduced from eight to six. The question is, will this be enough: if just one test results in the destruction of Papeete airport and rioting in the centre of Tahiti, what will another five bring?

The author has written extensively on France and the French colonies.