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".

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