As we tucked into the Tasmanian seafood, I scanned the half-empty restaurant and the head waiter confirmed her story. "It's very sad what's been happening," he said. "We may be a French establishment, but we don't necessarily agree with what Chirac has done. And most of our employees are Australian people. They're the ones who are really being hit by these boycotts."
He was referring to something which has become a familiar pattern of Australian life since President Jacques Chirac announced three weeks ago that France would embark on a new round of underground nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll, in French Polynesia, in September. His decision has rendered the French the pariahs of the Antipodes. Melbourne, with its penchants for gastronomic indulgence and political demonstration, has turned against the French in a big way.
Jacques Reymond, owner of one of the city's many French eating-houses, arrived one morning to find his windows spray-painted with the words "Steamed Genitals a la Carte". He laughed resignedly as he told me: "I've been in Australia for 13 years, and I'm as much against this stupid testing decision as anyone else. It's shocking. We don't need it. The South Pacific is a wonderful part of the world. Why violate it like this?"
Joelle Delongvert, with several other French restaurateurs who oppose the tests, has displayed a sign outside her restaurant declaring: "We do not support the French nuclear testing." Curiously enough, it was the French consulate which advised them to take this step as a security measure. At supermarkets across the country, French products such as yoghurt and cheese have been slashed to half price in a bid to win back buyers. After being fully subscribed, balls and dinners to mark Bastille Day on 14 July are being cancelled because organisers fear a backlash from flaunting so defiantly French an occasion.
Gary Steele, head of a Melbourne importing company, said he had cancelled an order for 48,000 bottles of French wine after his clients, supermarket chains, said they feared customer resistance if they displayed them. The wine had been targeted to compete against cheaper Australian brands whose prices have been forced up due to a drought-induced grape shortage. In this market, Australian drinkers are sticking rigidly to the likes of Jacob's Creek, quietly forgetting that Orlando, the South Australian vineyard from which it comes, is now controlled by Pernod Ricard of France.
Ever since French intelligence agents in 1985 sank the Rainbow Warrior, which was due to set out from New Zealand on a protest voyage to the Mururoa test site, anti-French feeling has never been far below the surface in the Pacific. As the Rainbow Warrior's successor sails to Mururoa this week to mark the 10th anniversary of that event, the latest Australian protests have been echoed through the region. New Zealand has warned the French not to fire on this Rainbow Warrior, as they have threatened to do, or else. Western Samoa and other island states have imposed embargoes on French goods. Paul Keating, the Australian Prime Minister, wrote an article in Le Monde on 28 June describing Mr Chirac's decision as "an assault on the rights of small nations by a large one" and "a regression to old colonial attitudes".
France has replaced the British monarchy as the politically incorrect order of the day in Australia. Compared with the passions aroused over the French tests, Mr Keating's republican campaign has become a somewhat small issue. The French seem to have forgotten, or ignored, the fact that the Pacific is a different place than in 1962, when they moved their test site to its coral atolls from Algeria after Algerian independence. Then it was full of island colonies. Now the only colonies left belong to France: New Caledonia and French Polynesia.
I'm glad that I made my Melbourne French-restaurant visit now. The way temperatures are rising, when the eight nuclear tests start in September and continue through to May, I doubt whether one will be able to be seen patronising anything French without being spat on.
ROBERT MILLIKENReuse content