South Pacific troubles put French government on the defensive

Troubles are growing for President Franois Mitterrand's government in the most unlikely of places -- halfway across the globe in the South Pacific. According to this week's edition of the French weekly VSD, Jean-Louis Bianco, secretary general to the Elys'ee Palace, ordered and directed the bombing in Auckland, New Zealand, of the Rainbow Warrior boat belonging to the ecologist group Greenpeace. That attack on July 10 sunk the boat and killed one man.

This accusation came without direct proof. A spokesman for the Elys'ee Palace called the VSD article ``fantastical'' and announced that the magazine would be sued for libel.

Two other magazines carried similar reports yesterday. The weekly L'Ev'enement du Jeudi said in an unsourced report that the ship was blown up after a top-ranking Defense Ministry official, whom the magazine did not identify, issued instructions to sabotage the boat last April.

Another weekly, the influential L'Express, said the sabotage plan ``was drawn up, prepared, and executed by the French secret service. . . .'' It gave no source for the allegation.

These magazine accusations followed a French state radio report this week that a couple held in New Zealand in connection with the bombing were French Army officers. The radio said the couple were sent to spy on the vessel, but weren't involved in the actual bombing.

This report was also unsubstantiated, and the French Defense Ministry declined to comment on it.

Nonetheless, the Mitterrand government is on the defensive. Hints of official French involvement in the Greenpeace affair forced the President to establish an official investigation last week.

At the same time, problems in the French colony of New Caledonia, where native Melanesians and French settlers are locked in a bitter struggle, has forced the government to call Parliament into special session.

Mitterrand wants to remove the situation from the headlines so it does not become a major issue in next year's legislative elections.

He proposes to satisfy Melanesian demands for independence by holding new autonomy elections on the island in advance of an independence referendum. But many of the French settlers object -- and they are supported by a vocal opposition in France.

As of Wednesday, the conservatives were continuing to frustrate the government proposals by stalling debate in the Senate.

While New Caledonia underlines the delicate issue of continuing French colonialism in the South Pacific, the Greenpeace affair raises the even more explosive problem of France's nuclear testing.

Ever since 1966 when France began the tests, its relations in the area have been compromised. Just last week, eight South Pacific nations condemned Paris and called for a nuclear-free zone in the South Pacific.

The Greenpeace attack has focused these concerns. According to published reports, the French secret services wanted to stop Greenpeace from observing nuclear tests planned this fall on the Mururua atoll.

Some observers here claim the case undermines Mitterrand's electoral promise to clean up government.

If it is found that the government intelligence service ordered the Greenpeace bombing, and Mitterrand is found not to have known about it, he would look as if he has lost control of his government. Worse yet would be if, as some claim, the President indeed knew.

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