Leading Article: A guilty silence on Mururoa atoll

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Across the world, governments and ordinary citizens are protesting against the French decision to restart nuclear testing at Mururoa atoll. This is not just another trespass by a Greenpeace ship. In Australia and New Zealand, people are boycotting French goods. Demonstrators in Strasbourg yesterday came from all over Europe. Large majorities in Germany say they want the French to think again, putting Chancellor Helmut Kohl under enough pressure that he was moved to raise the issue with President Jacques Chirac at their summit yesterday. The protesters are right - as this newspaper pointed out nine days ago - that the tests are not merely risking radiation. France is sending the worst possible signal about the conduct of international affairs to the many Asian states that aspire to become nuclear powers.

One voice is conspicuously missing. British government sources yesterday, describing their own stance as "low profile", said it was entirely a matter for the French. Officially, Britain merely welcomes the French commitment to the comprehensive test ban treaty that comes into force next year. Neither John Major nor Malcolm Rifkind, the new Foreign Secretary, will raise the matter directly with the French, although it appears some way down the crowded agenda for a forthcoming European foreign ministers' meeting. Asked in the Commons yesterday to condemn France, Mr Major tersely replied: "No, I will not."

Mr Major is making a serious mistake, raising suspicions that Britain itself might have undisclosed military reasons for not consigning the French to splendid isolation on this issue. To argue, as the Times did yesterday, that the protests are misplaced because there was no equivalent campaign against Chinese tests earlier in the year misses the point. Greenpeace is right to direct the Rainbow Warrior against France because there is a chance that if a campaign against French testing is sufficiently strong and sustained even a neo-Gaullist government will have to pay attention.

Perhaps Mr Major believes that Mr Chirac will be so grateful for Britain's silent support over nuclear testing that he will be helpful to Britain in future negotiations over European integration? This is fanciful: Mr Chirac's recent ditherings on the relaxation of EU border controls may or may not conceal a deeper set of doubts about the traditional Franco- German line on the development of the EU; but if they do, there is no reason to believe that British support for what is going on in the south Pacific will make any difference.

Jim Bolger, the New Zealand Prime Minister, said yesterday that "the heavyweights of the world" should publicly condemn the nuclear blasts. This is a simple and reasonable test for Mr Major: either condemn this outrageous French policy or else abandon any claim that Britain "punches above its weight" in world affairs. It is time for Mr Major to weigh in.