Who exactly is it that the French are planning to nuke? Forget Hiroshima, Paris is all that really matters

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The Independent Online
YOU ARE the recently elected leader of a non-Anglophone European country which isn't quite certain that it still qualifies as a world power. Your election victory wasn't the walk-over everyone expected, with an annoyingly strong showing from the left in the first round.

Even worse, the defeated far-right candidate ran an effective campaign of harassment, threatening to urge his supporters to vote socialist in the crucial second round. You need to make your mark on the world stage as fast as possible.

Do you: (a) pull off a spectacular hostage rescue involving a hijacked plane with a reasonable number of your own nationals on board; (b) let off some nuclear weapons in a sparsely populated area as far from home as possible; (c) get tough with the Bosnian Serbs, in the knowledge that the other Western powers will fail to support you? The correct answers are (b) and (c), only because (a), in some ways the most attractive option, depends on the willingness of unpredictable and fissiparous foreign terrorist groups to play along with you.

This, in my cynical way, is how I read the behaviour of Jacques Chirac, French President, in the last few days. His scientific advisers claim they'd love to test the French nuclear deterrent by computer simulation but say they don't have enough information. Does this mean that President Mitterrand, with exactly the same data available, neglected his country's security during his term of office? And why did nobody notice before now?

I'm also puzzled by the question of who exactly the French are planning to nuke, apart from a lot of unfortunate seabirds and marine life off Mururoa atoll. No one has dared use an atom bomb in anger since 1945, in part at least because in most recent conflicts - the Gulf war, the civil war in former Yugoslavia - it would be impossible to punish the aggressors without devastating their victims as well.

"Don't forget," my friend Joe Farrell from Glasgow University reminded me this week, "that it was the French who gave us the word chauvinism." My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as "exaggerated or aggressive patriotism", a trait displayed to such a degree by the Bonapartist Marechal Chauvin that he became a laughing-stock.

It's also the kind of posturing you'd expect from the Gaullist right as it tries to see off Jean-Marie Le Pen. No matter how valiantly Greenpeace protests against nuclear testing. I don't think Jacques Chirac gives a damn. What matters, as always in French politics, is not world opinion but how it plays in Paris and its environs.

I'VE NO IDEA whether the latest generation of nuclear weapons is long and pointy but anyone who doubts their potency as a phallic symbol should spend an afternoon in a newspaper archive. In 1952, when Britain tested its first atom bomb - a crude plutonium implosion device based on Fat Man, the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki - in the Monte Bello Islands off Australia, British journalists could hardly contain their excitement.

The long-defunct Daily Graphic announced that "Britain now has what is believed to be the world's most powerful atomic weapon" and speculated that British scientists had overtaken the Americans by letting off the world's first hydrogen bomb. This was complete nonsense. Operation Hurricane, the codename for the Monte Bello test, was actually the world's 34th atomic explosion - which doesn't, admittedly, make such a good headline.

A month later the Americans tested their first hydrogen device, still far from being a usable weapon, at Eniwetok. But the raison d'etre of the British test, like the forthcoming French ones, was to boost a faltering sense of national identity. The Daily Graphic published a fawning open letter to Dr (later Lord) William Penney, the scientist in charge of Operation Hurricane, whom it addressed - chauvinistically, you might say - as "easily the best mind in the world on atom- and hydrogen-bomb research".

"The fact that you and your team have made it possible for Britain to make and store atom bombs has made the country a world-power once again," the paper enthused. But the British did show some sensitivity to Australian opinion. As they prepared to let off two atomic devices at Emu Field on the Australian mainland in 1953, they promised to respect religious feelings by not testing bombs on a Sunday.

ONE MORNING last week, before I'd even had breakfast, my whole life flashed before my eyes. The cause of this unsettling sensation, possibly akin to drowning although as a moderately good swimmer I can't speak from first-hand experience, was a headline on the front page of the Daily Telegraph: "Pope praises feminism and apologises to women".

Is the Pope a feminist? Am I, to adapt a phrase, a Catholic? I devoured the story and of course it was all nonsense - il Papa, as they charmingly call him in Italy, had merely confirmed that women can't be priests and praised their "beneficent influence" on future generations. "Pope says no to women priests, yes to mums", in other words, which is nowhere near a good story.

It turns out that the Pope is against sexual violence - this is news? - and in favour of equal pay. I've missed his birthday (18 May, I believe) but if he's really interested in "the great process of women's liberation", perhaps it's not too late to send him a few books on the subject. Many feminists, for instance, are fond of Ute Ranke-Heinemann's Eunuchs for Heaven - The Catholic Church and Sexuality, a savage indictment of the church's "ingrained anti-feminism and hostility to pleasure of all kinds, but most especially sexual".

Professor Ranke-Heinemann was the first woman to hold a chair of Catholic theology. Eight years ago, the church withdrew her licence to teach for questioning the virgin birth. I doubt whether the Pope had her in mind when he praised "those women of goodwill who have devoted their lives to defending the dignity of womanhood".