France strikes back at Australia over N-tests

Chirac under fire: French government threatens economic sanctions as National Assembly chairman leads counter-offensive

France yesterday mounted a fierce counter-offensive against the worldwide attacks on its decision to resume nuclear tests, announcing a series of retaliatory measures against Australia, which has spearheaded opposition in the South Pacific, and mobilising senior officials to defend French nuclear policy.

The measures announced last night represent a sharp escalation of the already bitter dispute. They include a "reconsideration" of imports of Australian coal, the cancellation of contracts to buy Australian uranium "in view of Australia's stance on nuclear affairs", and the withdrawal of the French electricity company, EDF, from a joint project (a move that anticipates a likely Australian decision to exclude it).

A statement issued by the French foreign ministry also said that France would ask the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation to consider whether Australia's conduct in the dispute had breached international conventions. Australia has excluded the French aerospace firm, Dassault, from bidding for a contract in Australia; the French diplomatic bag has been delayed; Australian dockers have been refusing to unload French cargo, and Australian states are being encouraged to boycott French goods - a measure that is already costing French exporters millions of francs.

The lead in the French diplomatic counter-offensive was allocated to Philippe Seguin, chairman of the National Assembly, Chirac supporter and staunch upholder of the principle of national sovereignty, who led the anti-Maastricht campaign in France two years ago.

Writing in the pro-Chirac newspaper, Le Figaro, yesterday, Mr Seguin said it was not a question of whether President Jacques Chirac was right or wrong in deciding to resume testing, but of his duty as president. Certainly, he said, alluding to the French opinion polls and the international boycott calls, "if he had cared only about his peace and quiet, his popularity, sales of Chanel No 5 to Japan, or deepening cultural ties with Australia, he would not have done it".

But, he said, as soon as it became apparent that the "credibility and permanence" of France's nuclear deterrent could be affected by failure to complete the test programme (begun under President Francois Mitterrand before the moratorium), "he would have been failing in his duty if he had not taken the decision he did".

Mr Seguin said that it was the objections from France's European partners, especially Germany, that hurt most, and argued that by defending its own sovereignty and retaining a credible deterrent, France was doing all Europe a favour.

French nuclear weapons, he said, had been part of the "flexible response" strategy that had defended West Germany and Europe. Now that Germany was united and the US was retreating into isolationism, France could "give total nuclear assurance to its principal partner and treat any violation of its territory as tantamount to an attack on its own".

Mr Seguin's article, however, was clearly directed also at opinion within France, where polls have shown an unexpectedly high level of disapproval. Mr Chirac's overall popularity rating dropped 10 percentage points in the month after he announced the resumption of tests and another poll this week showed that 60 per cent of those asked wanted Mr Chirac to reverse the decision, while 56 per cent thought it was "wrong".

Until yesterday there was also a conspicuous lack of public support for Mr Chirac from his government. A commentary in Le Figaro last weekend criticised ministers for their "deafening silence", noting that there had been "no word, or almost no word" from them, "no argued explanation, no counter-offensive. That is not normal". The result, it said, was that "the head of state has been left in the front line and his argument isn't getting through".

After that, there was a distinctly half-hearted attempt by the Environment Minister, Anne-Marie Couderc, to defend the French position.Michel Barnier, the minister for Europe, was dispatched to take the flak at this week's Association of South East Asian Nations meeting. Yesterday he said wearily the only answer was "to explain, explain and explain again".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Support Engineer

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Support Engi...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence