French PR campaign puts issue in the open

Nuclear-test row: Paris media machine aims at diplomatic damage limitation while Polynesians argue over date of the first explosion

France has launched a fresh attempt to contain the considerable diplomatic damage from planned nuclear tests in the Pacific. Only two days before 1 September - the earliest date on which France said it could resume its nuclear-test programme - the carefully orchestrated campaign is coupling an unprecedented level of openness about nuclear matters with extreme concern from the authorities to avoid action that might show protesters, and Greenpeace in particular, in a favourable light.

Last night, for the second night running, one of France's main television channels broadcast a discussion programme on the question of nuclear testing, with the participation - live from the beach of Mururoa Atoll - of senior military commanders, including the operational head of the testing programme.

The first programme, shown at peak viewing time on Monday evening, was remarkable for bringing together in the same forum not just military officers, but the Defence Minister, Charles Millon, government advisers past and present, scientists - for and against nuclear testing - the head of Greenpeace (France) and a readers' panel from the Parisien newspaper.

The discussion was a rare occasion for French television on two counts. It allowed ministers and senior officials to be directly questioned and opposed on air. Political interviews in France are invariably one-on-one between the interviewer and the politician and handled very gently according to an agreed agenda.

It was rare too in allowing the whole basis of France's nuclear defence policy to be questioned. In the past, the French nuclear deterrent has been taken so much for granted by successive governments and voters that to question its validity was regarded as akin to betrayal. On Monday evening, viewers were treated to the spectacle of the head of Greenpeace, Remy Parmentier, asking Mr Millon who France thought its enemies were in the post-Cold War world - a question to which Mr Millon, sitting awkwardly upright in his upholstered blue chair, could supply only the vaguest of answers.

The discussion was interspersed with video sequences: an explanation of how tests are conducted, shots from inside the Mururoa test site and the research centre near Paris, as well as a feature on contamination, which concluded by saying that while short-term effects were considered negligible, long-term effects could be more damaging.

In the South Pacific, the military has provided facilities on Tahiti for the journalists expected to cover the tests and a direct satellite link to Mururoa. Previous French tests were not even reported. But the Navy has also allowed 13 French journalists on to one of six frigates, the Prairial, engaged in keeping the protesting boats out of French territorial waters.

The 13, from all parts of France, have been required to sign a confidentiality agreement pledging not to "solicit or divulge" information about anything other than the operation against Greenpeace, codenamed Nautile 95-2.

The Prairial has a permanent crew of 86, a helicopter crew and a 24- strong naval commando unit. It seems, however, that the Navy has instructions to try to avoid any repetition of the violence that gave Greenpeace such a propaganda coup on 9 July, when commandos boarded Rainbow Warrior II.

Back in Paris, the political and intellectual aspects of the argument are being addressed by senior ministers in the columns of the leading newspapers.

After an early salvo three weeks ago by Philippe Seguin, chairman of the National Assembly, and a staunch Gaullist in his attachment to French sovereignty, recent days have seen contributions not only from Mr Millon, but from the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, and the Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette.

Mr Juppe, who has been conspicuous by his reticence on the subject, studiedly avoided any straight defence of the test programme itself. He did, however, broach an idea which resurfaced in Mr de Charette's interview this week: that the French could "share" their nuclear deterrent with other European countries.

While this is not a new idea - it has been broached before when France's nuclear status has entered international discussion - its re-airing seems designed to curb criticism, especially from Germany and Italy, by suggesting that French nuclear weapons have a potential benefit for all Europe.

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