WHEN French President Jacques Chirac and President Clinton meet in Washington tomorrow, French nuclear-weapons testing is likely to be near the top of the agenda.
France's defense community is pressuring its new president to resume nuclear testing in its South Pacific territories, which it deems essential to maintaining France's nuclear deterrent.
But he faces strong diplomatic pressures to avoid a move that could jeopardize a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or rile France's Pacific territories.
"If a decision has been made to resume nuclear testing, Chirac will need a clear understanding with the United States about how to achieve their mutual goal of a comprehensive test ban treaty next year," said a Western diplomat.
Former French President Francois Mitterrand unilaterally suspended all French nuclear testing in April 1992, and two years later called for a $2 billion program of computer simulations to replace underground tests.
During his campaign for the French presidency, Mr. Chirac refused to rule out new underground tests in the Pacific.
"I have yet to meet any competent member of the scientific community who believes that we can yet simulate nuclear testing," he said in a debate with Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin May 3.
"It would be totally irresponsible for a great country like France to exclude herself from the ranks of the nuclear powers in the name of some grand principle and lose her national prestige and security because of it," he added.
Since 1960, when President Charles de Gaulle established a French nuclear force, French presidents of all political persuasions have seen a credible deterrent as key to the nation's great-power status.
France is the world's No. 3 producer of nuclear weapons, after the US and the former Soviet Union.
THE new French government is echoing similar themes. "The defense of France rests primarily on our nuclear deterrent, which assures the protection of the vital interests of the nation," Prime Minister Alain Juppe told the National Assembly on May 23.
On June 6, the French daily newspaper Liberation reported that a commission of seven military experts had urged Chirac to resume a limited program of nuclear tests as quickly as possible. A spokesman for the Defense Ministry denied the report.
"The only question for us, is whether the leaks to the press were for domestic or international purposes, to force the president into making a quick decision," said a spokesman for the French Atomic Energy Commission.
The press reports prompted a swift response from environmental groups and Pacific nations, particularly New Zealand, which has been a leading antinuclear spokesman in the region.
"Last night, I took the opportunity of advising the French ambassador, yet again, of the position that New Zealand took on the prospect that France might be foolish enough to reconsider nuclear testing in the Pacific," New Zealand Prime Minister James Bolger told his Parliament last Thursday.
Since 1960, France has conducted at least 172 nuclear tests, the majority of them on the atoll of Mururoa in the Pacific, according to the environmental group Greenpeace.
The renewed flap over nuclear testing comes at a key antinuclear anniversary. Ten years ago next month, French secret service agents blew up the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior in the Auckland, New Zealand, harbor. The vessel was about to embark on a cruise near the Mururoa atoll to disrupt French nuclear tests.
Greenpeace leaders plan a mission to the atoll this week aboard Rainbow Warrior II. In the latest opinion poll, 56 percent of French voters surveyed called for abandoning nuclear testing, according to SOFRES polling organization.