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France to back total test ban

In a new attempt to reverse the tide of criticism against its decision to resume nuclear tests, France yesterday proposed that the comprehensive test ban treaty - due to be signed next year - should outlaw all further testing of whatever type. And in a desperate attempt to convince the world that it is serious, Paris has also come up with another novel suggestion - turning the Mururoa atoll, where the tests will take place, into a holiday complex.

The test ban proposal was tabled by French representatives at the Geneva disarmament conference, and accompanied by a strong publicity pitch from Paris for foreign and domestic consumption. As it stands, the draft treaty would ban nuclear tests above one kiloton, leaving open the possibility that the nuclear powers could continue to conduct weaker tests after the end of 1996. Some observers believe that the purpose of at least some of the French tests this autumn is to develop a smaller nuclear weapon.

Yesterday's change of position by France seems to have been designed specifically to scotch this speculation and to please Australia, which has long pressed for the test ban treaty to be total. The Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans, was quoted as saying it was was "exactly the kind of pledge we had wanted from the French".

In many ways, the propaganda onslaught mounted by France in the past week has only emphasised the depth of the hole it has dug for itself.

French officials have tried several times to relaunch three of the main points of President Jacques Chirac's original pronouncement: that the tests would be the last, that France would sign the test ban treaty in the autumn of 1996, and that new uses would be sought for the South Pacific test site and for the nuclear missile centre in southern France. But they are still drowned out by the simple message from the opposition - that France is to resume testing.