France calls a halt to nuclear test programme

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The Independent Online
In a terse and dramatic statement, broadcast at the beginning of last night's main television news bulletin, President Jacques Chirac announced the end of France's latest, and possibly last, series of nuclear tests.

In the two-minute broadcast, scheduled less than half an hour before it took place, Mr Chirac said that the sixth test of the current series, conducted late on Saturday night, European time, would be the last.

He reiterated France's intention of signing the international nuclear test ban agreement, now that the "safety and reliability" of the country's independent nuclear deterrent had been ensured. The announcement came seven and a half months after Mr Chirac incurred worldwide opprobrium for abandoning a three-year international moratorium on nuclear testing agreed by his Socialist predecessor, Francois Mitterrand. In all, France has conducted 210 nuclear tests, since its first, ordered by General Charles de Gaulle, in the Sahara, in 1960.

Before Mr Chirac's broadcast, French officials had carefully held open the possibility that France might conduct one more test. However, they stood by Mr Chirac's original pledge, made on 13 June, that there would be a maximum of eight tests, and reaffirmed assurances from the defence minister, Charles Millon, that the series would be completed before the end of February.

In his announcement last night, Mr Chirac said that he felt he had "accomplished one of the first duties" with which he had been charged as President, "in giving France the means of ensuring its independence and security in decades to come". In a clear gesture to German public opinion, which has been solidly against the French nuclear tests, Mr Chirac's announcement was also broadcast, at the same time, on the joint French-German channel, Arte.

Saturday night's test, which took place in the Fangataufa lagoon, close to Mururoa atoll in the South Pacific, had a force of 120 kilotonnes, making it the largest of the series. It was met by the now predictable statements of anger and regret from around the world, including a particularly strong statement of opposition from New Zealand, which said it would take decades to rebuild diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The announcement that last Saturday's test was France's last came two days before Mr Chirac begins his first state visit to the United States. In French diplomatic terms, it thus counter-balances the first test of the series, which took place on the eve of Mr Chirac's first visit to the US as President and his debut in that capacity on the world stage - when he attended the UN General Assembly in New York and the summit of the Group of Seven industrialised countries at Halifax, Nova Scotia.

It was a noticeably chastened Mr Chirac who announced the end of France's nuclear test programme last night. He acknowledged both the strength of world opposition to the test programme and opposition from within France. While French diplomats conceded that opposition, not just in the South Pacific, but in Europe, had taken them by surprise, it was the strength of French opinion, above all, that seems to have stung the President and his government.

As international leaders, including Chancellor Kohl of Germany, queued up last night to express their satisfaction that the tests were now over, the French environment minister, Corinne Lepage, conceded that the end of the test programme was "a great relief" for her. She had been singularly reticent in her endorsement of the programme from the start.

Recognising the relatively recent emergence of environmentalist and anti- nuclear opinion in France, Mr Chirac said the concerns that the tests had aroused in France testified to people's "growing attachment both to collective security, and to safeguarding the environment". Those concerns, he said, "are also mine".

While Mr Chirac and French officials now clearly hope that their country's nuclear pariah status is at an end, the signs are that it may take considerably longer and much diplomatic effort before the effect of this latest test series is completely purged. There are also signs, however, that Mr Chirac - despite his self-professed ideological status as heir to General de Gaulle - may be taking France in the direction of a joining a European, if not Nato-wide, nuclear deterrent, and thus ending France's status as an independent nuclear power.

Having rejoined the main command structures of Nato last month, France is now willing to discuss nuclear issues for the first time in a Nato forum.