N-test fallout turns ugly

FRANCK FRANcOIS left his Sydney bakery, La Gerbe d'Or, the other day to find his car tyres had been let down. It was the seventh time this had happened since President Jacques Chirac provoked a wave of anti-French protests across Australia, New Zealand, and other Pacific countries, with his announcement on 13 June that France would resume testing nuclear weapons at Mururoa atoll in French Polynesia next month.

"I came to Australia 20 years ago," said Mr Francois, who has dual French- Australian citizenship. "I stayed here because we all seemed to be able to succeed together in the melting-pot while the rest of the world was fighting and killing each other. But now I feel like I'm living in a war zone myself. I can't believe this is happening here."

He was echoing the fears of other French Australians over one of the most vitriolic backlashes against another democratic Western country Australia has seen, one not equalled even by the anti-Americanism at the height of the Vietnam war 25 years ago. Some French people in Australian cities describe it as an over-reaction. Others don't mince their words: "It's xenophobia, racism, the lowest form of humanity," said Mr Francois.

As the war of words between Australia and France heightened last week, there were more incidents with disturbing overtones. French-Australians Marc and Murielle Laucher arrived at their Sydney cafe, Le Petit Creme, to find its windows smeared with faeces. Mr Laucher pointed to a headline in a Sydney newspaper: "Pourquoi les Francais sont des canards". He said: "It's quite disgusting. We've been in Australia for seven years. We have nothing to do with the French government's decision on nuclear testing. We oppose it. But the way Australians are protesting by personal abuse against us has gone too far. I'm expecting our cafe will be defaced again."

The personal abuse was returned in kind last week when demonstrators marched on the Australian embassy in Paris shouting "L'Australie aux chiottes", and Le Figaro published an astonishing open letter to Paul Keating, the Australian Prime Minister, accusing Australia of practising "ethnic purification" against Aborigines, and Mr Keating of seeking to "assuage your guilty conscience" by attacking France. Ironically, Mr Keating is one of Australia's greatest devotees of French art and culture. He appears to have only two forms of relaxation: his family, and lovingly maintaining his collection of French Empire clocks.

There has always been an uneasy stand-offishness between Anglo-Saxons and the French in Australia, ever since the British beat them to Botany Bay by only a few days. Drive a few miles through a tangle of suburbs south of Sydney, and you will come to a monument, on the foreshore of Botany Bay, to Jean-Francois de La Perouse, the French explorer who sailed two ships into the bay on 26 January, 1788, just as the British were sailing out of it with the First Fleet of convicts to settle Sydney a few miles up the coast. A fine museum dedicated to La Perouse, the product of French- Australian co-operation, opened at Botany Bay for Australia's bicentenary in 1988. The entente cordiale of that year now lies in ruins.

Two countries with strong streaks of nationalism have become locked in an unprecedented diplomatic showdown. Whereas France regards Australia as an upstart that wants to push it out of the Pacific, Australia accuses France of miscalculating the strength of the region's concerns about the long-term environmental consequences of further nuclear testing on an atoll which has already been subjected to 138 underground explosions.

There were glimmers of a crack in Paris's resolve last week, when a French Foreign Ministry official said that the tests due to start next month would be the last, and that France would close the Mururoa test site when they finish in May and would possibly turn it into a Club Mediterranee resort. The Australian media responded to the latter suggestion with derision. Cartoonists portrayed people returning from a Mururoa holiday with misshapen heads. Advertising agencies invited by the Sydney Morning Herald offered: "The holiday at the Tropic of Cancer", "The hottest holiday in the Pacific", "The tan that radiates" and "Club Merde - have the holiday of your Half- Life".

Canberra has refrained from discouraging such cynicism. Last week Mr Keating pledged A$200,000 (pounds 94,000) towards the hire of a protest ship to carry Australian, Japanese, and European MPs to the vicinity of Mururoa for the tests. The first ships in a New Zealand protest fleet left last weekend.

Franck Francois is not impressed. "I'm scared and disappointed by all this slander," he said "I'm worried that Australia might lose its dignity. Why don't the MPs go to Bosnia instead? I don't like the nuclear tests either, but nuclear technology is here to stay. Once it's invented,it's a bit like trying to get rid of prostitution."