French and Australian ministers met on the fringes of a south-east Asian regional forum in Brunei yesterday, but neither side would budge in the worsening row over French plans to resume nuclear tests in the south Pacific.
Michel Barnier, French Minister for European Affairs, said after his "cordial and very frank" meeting with the Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, that the "limited" series of tests did not justify the Australian government's "agitation or its preaching". Mr Evans retorted: "What they have underestimated is that the end of the Cold War created in people's minds a sense that the nuclear era was over. What this did was make people think about the threat all over again."
Mr Evans had led opposition to the tests at the Brunei conference, causing the European Union delegation to dissociate itself from a communique on security issues which urged an immediate end to all nuclear weapons testing.
He said Australia had no plans to follow France's example and recall its ambassador from Paris. But Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, said France was "going to have to wear" bans on doing business in the south Pacific in the wake of Canberra's decision on Tuesday to bar a French company, Dassault, from bidding for a A$1bn (pounds 476m) contract to supply jet trainers to the Royal Australian Air Force.
Within hours of Canberra's ban, the French Foreign Ministry announced that it was recalling Dominique Girard, its ambassador in Canberra, for consultations. On his way back to Paris, Mr Girard said: "We've done no harm to Australia. We have always said that we wanted to keep a very substantial, good, productive and mutually beneficial relationship with Australia. So we consider that the way in which we have been treated, in many respects, wasn't in line with this policy."
Mr Girard's recall was seen in Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific countries as a sign of France's deepening anger over the region's protests at President Jacques Chirac's decision to conduct eight underground nuclear tests at Mururoa atoll. Paris, though, has directed its strongest fire at Canberra. The French Foreign Ministry made it clear that the ban on Dassault was just the latest in a long line of anti-French measures in Australia since June which have worn Paris's patience thin. It cited actions by Australian unions and demonstrators such as mail deliveries blocked to the French embassy in Canberra since 14 July; French ships being delayed in Australian ports; and the refusal by police to clear protesters from the embassy entrance.
"The French government denounces these discriminatory measures, calls for for an end to them, recalls the responsibility of the Australian government to international law, and is examining measures which could be taken in response," the Foreign Ministry said.
Mr Keating said the recall indicated that the French were starting to understand the south Pacific protest. "It is affecting French business and French standing in the region, and the French don't like it. But we don't like their capricious decision to continue to detonate nuclear weapons ... I think this sort of admonition is the price that the French are going to have to wear."
As the controversy swirled, Le Monde reported that General Jean-Claude Lesquer, the officer who organised the sinking of the Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior 10 years ago, had received one of France's highest awards. He was made a "grand officier'' of the Legion of Honour on 2 July.