Green power in the world's saloon bar

Conflict over France's nuclear tests signals a dramatic shift in political influence towards the consumer; Greenpeace has brilliantly exploited satellites and global newsroom hunger
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The Independent Online
No fiction writer, no propagandist, no political scientist, could have devised a neater example of the threats to nation-state power than the battle between the French and Greenpeace. This is not just about nuclear testing or the rising power of environmental campaigners. What is happening in Polynesia is nothing less than the crunching collision of old politics and new politics.

Military power is the ultimate expression of the nation state. It comes even before the minting of currency. Nations were carved out or destroyed on the basis of their talent and will for violent self-assertion. In this century, global violence helped to create the modern nation state.

It has been observed that ``the state makes war, and war makes the state''. Rightly; the huge 20th-century increases in state powers over citizens, as well as in the destructive capacity of states and the taxation that funded all this, came about through two world wars and then the Cold War.

From a traditional Western nationalist perspective, the decision of the new French president to assert the vigour of Frenchness by testing the nation's nuclear armoury was unexceptional. It involves French defence and happens on French territory. It is just the sort of thing a self-respecting Gaullist would do. Some people go in for fireworks when they arrive in office; some prefer nuclear tests.

Nor is this a French thing. Endless books about the SAS, the Foreign Legion and the US Marines remind us of the deep yearning, particularly among middle-aged men, for national military heroes.

By using military agents to sink the original Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour 10 years ago, killing one of the crew, and then using black-helmeted, masked commandos and tear gas to board and seize her successor, the French are not only asserting state power, but are doing it in the most traditional way still possible in the confines of this boringly complex and politically correct world.

Except, of course, that it is all going terribly wrong. There is the geopolitical aspect of the case, expressed through the fury of Pacific governments and peoples, leading to boycotts and diplomatic protests. It leads to the ticklish question of just what the French are doing in that part of the world anyway. Independence movements in French Polynesia and New Caledonia are growing, and it cannot be long before the shift in economic power to Asia-Pacific ends the era during which the West could use that part of the world for nuclear testing, turtle soup and sex tourism.

More immediately significant, though, is the way that a comparatively small non-governmental organisation, Greenpeace, is able to harness and direct larger global trends to make life uncomfortable for one of the world's most self-regarding governments.

What are these trends? First, the increase in global trade is beginning to make the consumer boycott a potent weapon. According to John Drummond of Integrity Works, a consultancy on business ethics, people are becoming ever readier to use their buying power for political reasons. A recent American survey suggested 75 per cent of households were boycotting some products, and in nearly half of those cases it was because of worries about company practices. In Britain, a Gallup survey of 30,000 consumers for the Co-operative Wholesale Society found a third saying they had boycotted stores or products, and 60 per cent saying they would consider doing so in future.

For obvious reasons, consumer boycotts work far better against companies than countries - South Africa was not freed by an uprising among wine- growers or the proprietors of orange groves. The Greenpeace-led boycotts of garages in Germany during the Brent Spar row, on the other hand, brought the company round with dramatic speed.

France is a rather bigger fish than Shell: Greenpeace is using direct action rather than boycotts, and even the Australian backlash against French produce and investment will be ineffective, since the two countries trade little. A rugby boycott would hurt more.

The distinction between action against companies and countries is not, though, quite so clear-cut. What links them is the power of the world's saloon bar. Thus far, whether the issue is whaling, nuclear power or the sub-sea disposal of redundant technology, Greenpeace has brilliantly exploited satellite links and the global newsroom hunger for exciting videotape to run rings round flatter-footed opponents.

Without this, the courage and imagination of its volunteers would be wasted. A vivid image counts for 1,000 words of refutation. According to people in the industry, it is statistically likely that someone will be killed during the onshore disposal of Brent Spar. Many scientists argued that it was the best environmental option, too. But Greenpeace had its heroes on board and its film of the helicopter dancing its way through jets of spray; and these things moved opinion more than the pro-Shell scientists did.

So it was essential that Rainbow Warrior II was loaded with journalists writing eyewitness accounts and radio broadcasters and film crews providing almost instant pictures, and that its seizure received widespread coverage not only here but in France, where Jacques Chirac can best be undermined. Like companies, governments can no longer be sure of getting their message across, even to their own people.

The bigger pattern is that environmental confrontations involving politicians are becoming rarer, and the focus is moving to contests between boardrooms and campaigners. In the case of Brent Spar, John Major was left looking helpless on the sidelines when Shell knuckled under; the company was not interested in British politics, but in continental sales.

Perhaps Greenpeace's most successful single action so far, though, was the development of the so-called ``greenfreeze'' technology to replace ozone-depleting fridges, something which has spread hugely. In that case, they bypassed conventional politics entirely, using an East German company to help develop the alternative fridges and then using consumer power to spread the technology to all the mainstream German producers and beyond.

It was the power of the market, responding to international agreements, which spread greenfreeze. The technology, which threatens some big companies, is being picked up in China, India, Latin America and Japan. If you are interested in the environment, then this is a big political story. It is just that it does not happen to feature any elected politicians.

Thus the new politics or, at least, the shift in powers from national governments to the global markets and those who have the imagination to influence them. Greenpeace is surfing those consumer and information markets, using a mix of real-life theatre, eye-catching propaganda and Western consumer outrage to spread its messages and find pressure-points in companies and politics.

The old politics, with its tricolour, its thunderous force, its masked commandos and its tenuous hold on voters' affections, is still strong. In this case, the odds against Greenpeace and its allies frustrating French national purpose must be pretty high. But as between mighty France and minuscule Greenpeace, there is no doubt which one looks embarrassed and which one seems, at a deeper level, more knowing, faster-moving, more in control. Whatever happens to these tests, the bigger shifts in the Pacific are against France - and against all countries and politicians who fail to see that the old sources of authority are crumbling.