Not in our back yard, Jacques...

The French nuclear tests have united the southern hemisphere in protest, reports Robert Milliken, but Europe remains largely apathetic, says Tony Barber

Robert Milliken,Tony Barber
Monday 07 August 1995 23:02 BST

Standing before 15,000 people, her hands adorned with Polynesian tattoos, Chantal Spitz, an anti-nuclear and independence activist from French Polynesia, cut a striking figure. "We are here to remember the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first but not the last victims of nuclear bombs," she said in a strong French accent. "We are also here for every victim of military and civil nuclear tests: people of Marshall Islands, of Maralinga, Three Mile Island, La Hague, Chernobyl - and people of Mururoa and Fangataufa."

At the mention of these last two places, the islands where next month France will detonate the first of eight nuclear tests, the crowd roared its support as it set out on a protest march through the streets of Sydney. Children with "Non!" painted across their faces walked next to adults waving placards saying "Guillotine Chirac", "In Your Back Yard Jacques" and "Ageing Hippies Against the Bomb". Outside the French consulate, a dog dressed in a T-shirt calling for a boycott of French products posed for photographers.

Ever since President Jacques Chirac announced on 13 June that France would resume testing nuclear weapons at Mururoa Atoll, a wave of anti- French protests has swept throughout Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific island nations. Not since the anti-Vietnam War marches of the early Seventies has the region seen such vociferous demonstrations. The children who were pushed in prams 25 years ago by parents demanding an end to United States military adventurism in Asia were themselves pushing prams last weekend through Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, Wellington and other cities calling on France to get out of the Pacific.

French nuclear tests have been a long-running political and diplomatic sore in the Pacific. But no earlier protests have equalled the passion, or the universal condemnation, as those of 1995. Twenty-two years ago, Australia and New Zealand sought an order in the International Court to stop France conducting tests in the atmosphere. The case was suspended only when France switched its Mururoa tests underground in 1974, some 11 years after Britain, the US and the Soviet Union had abandoned atmospheric tests. Anti-French feeling erupted again in 1985, when French intelligence officers blew up and sank the Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior, killing a photographer on board.

Since then, Australia and New Zealand have drifted further from their European roots as they focus on building their trade and business ties with Asia. Japan and other countries have solidly supported the stand against the French tests. At the same time, Australia and New Zealand have also developed a stronger regional identity with the Pacific island nations, for whom France's status as the Pacific's last colonial power is an anachronism.

Through a Royal Commission inquiry, Australians have been awakened to the environmental legacies of their own experience as host to British atmospheric nuclear tests at Maralinga in the South Australian desert in the Fifties. Those test sites, part of the traditional homelands of the Pitjantjatjara Aborigine with plutonium and other radioactive debris. Forty years later, Canberra has demanded that the British return to help clean up the lands.

The Cold War's demise, and a moratorium on testing announced by Paris in April 1992, had raised hopes in the Pacific that the French might quietly withdraw from further activities at Mururoa. Mr Chirac's announcement was a bombshell. It seriously miscalculated the strength of anti-colonial, anti-nuclear sentiment in the region. The decision last week to award one of France's highest military honours to General Jean-Claude Lesquer, the military officer who masterminded the Rainbow Warrior's sinking, left Canberra and Wellington breathless. Mr Chirac is being denounced as seeking to become the strong man of Europe by being the bully boy of the Pacific.

Although Canberra has imposed no trade bans, consumer boycotts of French products over the past few weeks have begun to hit hard. Some import companies have cancelled contracts for French wine, clothes, furniture and kitchenware. Personal abuse against French residents in Australia has taken a chilling turn.

In the trendy inner-Sydney district of Darlinghurst, Marc and Murielle Laucher, a couple with dual French-Australian citizenship, are recovering from finding the windows of their cafe, La Petite Creme, smeared with faeces. "Like many French people in Australia we're against the tests, but this is a low, pointless act," says Mr Laucher. "If Australia is serious, it would stop selling uranium to France." Against fierce opposition from its left wing, Australia's Labor government a decade ago decided to sell uranium to France, maintaining it was for civil use only. The latest row has brought widespread calls for the sales to be suspended.

While some of their fellow French cafe and bakery owners have seen their business cut in half, the Lauchers' restaurant is buzzing with loyal customers, including Suzy Coleman and her mother, Rodney. What do the Colemans think of the French tests? "They stink," says Rodney Coleman. "Bastards!" echoes her daughter.

Rodney Coleman's father, Keith Coleman, had been at Maralinga among a select group of British and Australian army officers taken to view one of the British nuclear tests from a few miles away. His health deteriorated after the tests, and he died in 1978 aged 57. "He told us they gave them sunglasses for the blast and they put their hands up and they could see their bones, like X-rays," Ms Coleman recalls. "Robert Menzies [Australian Prime Minister in the Fifties] claimed those tests were safe. Chirac makes the same claim today. But does Chirac know any more than Menzies did about science and safety?"

Chantal Spitz, from the French Polynesian island of Huahine, says many in her country no longer believe such assurances and are convinced that, after the shock of 175 nuclear tests since 1966, the coral atoll at Mururoa has reached breaking point. Last week, after years of denials, the French Atomic Energy Commission admitted that at least three of the Mururoa tests had caused radioactive contamination outside the contained areas. In a report in Paris last week, Medecins sans frontieres, the aid agency, claimed the French had not adequately monitored the health of Polynesians since nuclear testing began there in 1966, making baseless the official claims that the tests had no long-term impact on the health of the local population.

After rallies in Australia this week, Ms Spitz will rejoin Oscar Temaru, leader of the French Polynesian independence movement, to welcome the flotilla of protest vessels from Australia and New Zealand. Jim Bolger, the New Zealand Prime Minister, saw the first of 17 yachts leave his country on Sunday. Ian Cohen, a campaigner who achieved fame a decade ago by paddling a surfboard across the bows of two British and United States nuclear-powered warships in Australian waters, is helping to organise a protest ship for MPs. Now an MP himself in the New South Wales state parliament, Mr Cohen has received bookings from more than 60 Australian MPs, as well as Masayoshi Takemura, Japan's finance minister, and politicians from Italy, Austria and Germany.

In his Parliament House office, dressed in jeans and a brown sweater and wearing a silver earring, Mr Cohen says: "The reaction has been phenomenal. It has to do with the French failing to understand that we will no longer tolerate them using our territory for their tests, and the fear that this will reactivate an arms race and encourage small, maverick nations to join it."

Pausing to take a telephone booking from another MP, Mr Cohen looks worried. "It's getting out of hand," he says. "At this rate, we may have to hire the QEII."

but the European Union shrugs its shoulders

In Stockholm, organisers withdrew France's invitation to take part in the world fireworks championship. In the German city of Saarbrucken, 35 people have set off on a 280-mile march to Paris, where they intend to present President Jacques Chirac with a petition.

In Hamburg and Vienna, restaurants and shops have boycotted French products, and in Madrid the Spanish Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, says the French government has made a mistake.

France's decision to resume nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific has provoked much criticism in Europe, at an official level and among the general public. But if anything, the striking feature of the European response is how low-key it is compared with the outrage voiced in Australia, New Zealand and east Asian countries.

European consumers have not stopped buying French goods, such as perfume, cheese and wine, in significant numbers. Anti-nuclear demonstrations last month on Bastille Day, France's national day, were fairly tame affairs in every European capital. There may be little public enthusiasm in Europe for Mr Chirac's decision, but active protest remains the pastime of a minority.

If there is an exception to this rule, it is probably the Nordic area, traditional home of pacifists, environmentalists and other opponents of all things nuclear. Every Norwegian political party, bar one, has written to Mr Chirac calling for the cancellation of the planned tests. The Norwegian actress Liv Ullman has returned a French award to Paris, and Finland's consumer association wants a total ban on French products.

The speaker of the Swedish parliament, Birgitta Dahl, last week ordered French wines to be taken off the legislature's restaurant menu and removed from its souvenir shop. In Copenhagen, the Danish Prime Minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, climbed on a bicycle to lead the first stage of a 600- mile ride to Paris to deliver a letter of complaint. "Denmark says no to the atomic bomb, not only in Denmark but throughout the world," he said.

It is doubtful, however, that Mr Chirac has lost any sleep over the Nordic protests. The region is a small market for French products, and its political weight in Europe, though not negligible, is likewise limited. For the French government and armed forces, the two European Union countries whose opinions matter more than most are Germany and Britain, and neither of these is giving France much cause for worry.

Mr Chirac correctly calculated that John Major's government would keep out of the row. As a nuclear power itself, indeed one which co-operates closely with France on nuclear weapons policy, Britain has no interest in fanning the flames of the South Pacific tests dispute.

Moreover, Britain has found that on many central EU issues, above all that of the retention of national sovereignty, the French president is closer to the British position than was his predecessor, Francois Mitterrand. This could prove a priceless asset in next year's Intergovernmental Conference on reviewing the Maastricht treaty, and no Tory government would throw it away.

In Germany, matters are more complicated. Ever since 1945, the cornerstone of Germany's European policy has been friendship with France. Three devastating wars since 1870 made sure of that. Germans regard co-operation with France as so essential to their security, and that of Europe, that it is rare to hear any German politician criticise French policies in public.

Even the Greens and anti-nuclear activists in the opposition Social Democratic Party have been forced to admit that Germany has a higher national interest in good relations with France than in criticising the impending tests. Friedrich Wolf, a Greens deputy in the European Parliament, was virtually alone last month in publicly branding Mr Chirac "a neo-Gaullist Rambo". Still, there have been some public protests in Germany, and more than 10,000 Germans have sent electronic signatures to a special anti-nuclear complaints page on the Internet global computer network. A French farmers and food producers organisation in Provence has cancelled a promotional campaign in Germany, fearing that the perception of "French nuclear arrogance" would turn it into a fiasco.

The German press has shown less restraint than German politicians. But beneath the laborious moralising of Die Welt and Die Zeit, one discerns a deep dread of advocating anything that might jeopardise the Franco-German alliance.

That does not mean, however, that Germans have ever been entirely comfortable about the fact that France, like Britain and Russia, has nuclear weapons, while Germany does not. Ultimately, Germany's national security depends heavily upon the policies pursued by the nuclear-armed powers of Europe.

As a result, anti-nuclear feeling is a factor that is likely never to disappear from the German political equation. The dilemma facing Germans is how to reconcile their fear of nuclear weapons with the bald fact that their closest ally, France, shows no sign of giving them up.


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