While French President Franois Mitterrand was in central France calling for national cohesion, up north in the capital, new signs were emerging that his own government was in serious disarray. The respected daily Le Monde reported Tuesday not only that French spies had scuttled a Greenpeace protest ship in July, but that Defense Minister Charles Hernu had apparently approved the mission.
Mr. Mitterrand himself, the paper said, learned of France's connection to the sinking a week after it occurred, but waited a full three weeks -- until after accounts appeared in the press -- before ordering a government investigation.
At a time when Mitterrand had appeared to be unscathed by the scandal and to have rallied most political forces around him, the report cast new doubts on his government's future. If Le Monde's report is true, ``L'affaire Greenpeace'' moves from the realm of a bungled spy mission into that of a full government coverup.
Opposition leaders, who had been restrained in their remarks on the affair, immediately began calling for resignations.
``With the underwater exploits of Greenpeace, Mitterrand now stands confronted with an UnderWatergate,'' said former rightist minister Lionel Stol'eru. ``Let us hope that it has the same consequences as Watergate had for Richard Nixon.''
Mr. Hernu quickly issued a vigorous denial of the report, denouncing what he called ``a campaign of rumor and insinuation'' and refusing to respond to calls for his resignation. On Wednesday afternoon, the government spokeswoman, Georgina Dufoix, said: ``The government wants one thing: to establish the truth.''
Le Monde named none of its sources, but described them as current and former spies, knowledgeable police officials, ministerial advisers, and military experts linked to opposition parties.
The paper also said it had sources among Mr. Mitterrand's own people who were anxious for the truth to emerge so their boss would not be dragged down by the affair.
Le Monde said that bombs were planted on the hull of the Rainbow Warrior while it was in port in Auckland, New Zealand, by a previously unknown third team of French agents. Two explosions sank the ship on July 10 -- killing a crew member aboard -- just as it was preparing to lead a protest voyage to France's nuclear test sight at the South Pacific atoll of Mururoa.
The third team, according to the newspaper, would have been working in coordination with the two French agents who now stand charged in New Zealand with the bombings, as well as agents aboard a sailboat in the area at the time of the explosion.
According to Le Monde, they were all military careerists acting on orders from their superiors in the Direction G'enerale de la S'ecurit'e Ext'erieure, the French equivalent of the CIA.
Defense Minister Hernu, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Jeannou Lecaze, and Mitterrand's top military adviser all either ordered the bombing or knew about the mission and did not block it, Le Monde reported. The paper said it was Interior Minister Pierre Joxe, not Mr. Hernu, who informed Mr. Mitterrand of the bombing a week after the fact.
Government officials have ackowledged that French agents were sent to keep an eye on Greenpeace's protest plans, but they have categorically denied that any sabotage was ordered.
If true, however, Le Monde's story means that Hernu and other top military officials at least lied to the government-appointed investigator, Bernard Tricot, when they said only two teams of French agents were around Auckland at the time of the sinking. They would have also lied about the purpose of the mission.
Mr. Tricot's report, issued Aug. 26, cleared the French government from top to bottom of any involvement in the bombing. The story also means that when Mr. Mitterrand ordered a ``rigorous investigation'' of the affair on Aug. 7, promising punishment for the guilty ``at whatever level they are found,'' he had known of the plot for three weeks.
The newspaper story and the storm that it touched off come just as Mr. Mitterrand appeared to be shaking the scandal.
Last weekend he returned from a lightening trip to Mururoa during which he played up themes that unified most French: the protection of France's interests in the South Pacific and the maintainence of its independent nuclear force.
Mitterrand got high marks all around for his trip. Former President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing said Mitterrand had been ``right to affirm the continuity of France's policy of nuclear deterrence.''
France's Pacific territories are the remnants of its once sprawling empire, but anyalysts says they have taken on modern strategic importance through some 300,000 people in New Caledonia, French polynesia, and the tiny islands of Wallis and Futuna. France has a presence where China, the Soviet Union, and the United States are all competing for influence, analysts say.
``It is certain that inter-Pacific exchanges will intensify,'' says Gen. Pierre Gallois, a retired French military strategist. ``It is [in France's] interest to stay there, even if the French presence is in the south.'' Mitterrand's visit to the Mururoa test site helped him underscore his commitment to France's own nuclear arsenal -- a policy which, over 30 years, has gradually won over almost all of France's political groups.