France detonates fourth nuclear explosion

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The Independent Online


France last night conducted another nuclear test in the South Pacific, defying the objections of many of its European partners, Australasia and Japan. The test, with a force of 40 kilotons, was detonated at 2130 GMT and was announced shortly afterwards by the French Ministry of Defence.

It was the fourth in the series of "up to eight" tests announced by President Jacques Chirac in June and later reduced to six after protests around the world. As with previous tests, there was no advance notice.

The latest test came amid renewed controversy in the European Union over France's resumption of nuclear testing after a three-year moratorium.

Over the weekend, President Chirac cancelled a two-day summit meeting in Italy and a lunch with the Belgian Prime Minister, because both countries had supported a vote in the United Nations objecting to French nuclear testing.

The French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, cancelled a lunch with the Finnish Prime Minister, planned for yesterday, for the same reason. Mr Chirac had cited the "lack of solidarity" shown by France's European partners over nuclear policy. Only Britain voted against the UN motion.

Yesterday, in apparent recognition that public criticism was not the best way to deal with its unpopularity in the European Union, Mr Chirac sent messages of appreciation to Belgium, Spain and Germany, which abstained in the UN vote. Some of Mr Chirac's Gaullist allies in parliament supported his criticism of other European countries, remarking that his willingness to stand alone was in the tradition of General de Gaulle. French commentators, however, were frank about what they saw as the damage done to French diplomacy by insisting anyone who did not agree with France was the odd man out.

The condemnation of France by many of its European partners in the UN was also seen as an implicit rejection of the French offer, made after the first nuclear test, to place its nuclear capacity at the service of Europe as a whole, and particularly Germany.

The response to the last three nuclear tests has been muted compared with the outcry and rioting in Tahiti that greeted the first test on 5 September. But the last test, the third, on 27 October, caused a minor stir, as it came on the eve of the British-French summit in London and coincided with a French press interview given by Mr Major in which he supported Mr Chirac's nuclear policy. Mr Major's stance left him isolated at the Commonwealth summit.