Pacific Nations Use Money To End French Atomic Tests

Despite outcry, President Chirac stands by decision to resume testing

THE French government foresaw some diplomatic fallout when it announced June 13 that it would resume underground nuclear testing on a small coral atoll in the Pacific. But it wasn't prepared for a serious attack on its piggybank.

French President Jacques Chirac has stood fast amid chest-thumping from Pacific nations nearest to the test site on the Mururoa Atoll - such as New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. The threat of economic reprisals especially targets France's troubled aeronautics industries, how- ever, and it is making officials anxious. Key contracts at stake for France in the region include:

* The Australian Air Force's $430 million contract to buy Alphajets from Dassault Aviation, a deal Australian officials now say the French firm is "very unlikely" to secure.

* New Zealand's $12 million purchase of six Eurocopter Tiger helicopters. (Eurocopter is a European consortium including Aerospatiale, a French aerospace company.)

* A sale by the French arms manufacturer, Matra, of air-to-air missiles to New Zealand.

In addition, Australian unions and antinuclear groups are calling for a boycott on French imports. French exports to Australia amounted to some $1.6 billion in 1994. Australian restauranteurs canceled July 14 celebrations of France's national independence day. A group calling itself the Pacific Popular Front torched the French consulate in Perth, Western Australia - and the Sydney firemen's union said they wouldn't intervene if the French consulate in Sydney burned down.

This week's surprise success of a consumer boycott against Shell UK, along with a direct action campaign by the environmental group Greenpeace, fuels French concerns. A boycott of Shell gasoline stations across northern Europe forced the oil company to back down from a plan to sink an oil-storage platform in the North Sea.

On Wednesday, 60 environmental groups sponsored a protest in Paris against French nuclear tests, seven days after the president announced his "irrevocable" decision to resume a limited program of nuclear testing.

"It took us some time to organize this demonstration," says Penelope Komites, president of Greenpeace France. "The real mobilization will be in the days to come." On June 27, the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior 2 sails toward the test site. (Rainbow Warrior 1 was sunk by French intelligence agents just before embarking on a similar mission, 10 years ago next month.)

AT the same time, environmentalists were disappointed by the relatively muted reaction to the French decision in some Western capitals. "There could have been a stronger response, especially from the United States," says Greenpeace's Ms. Komites. "We are expecting an announcement of the resumption of US tests any day now."

In their response to international critics, French officials are lifting a page from the playbook of former French President Charles de Gaulle, who established the nation's nuclear force in 1960. France is now the world's third-largest producer of nuclear weapons, after the US and the former Soviet Union.

"Strictly a matter of national sovereignty," French Defense Minister Charles Millon told representatives of Europe's top defense forum meeting in Paris this week.

France says it will conduct only eight tests, and finish next May - in plenty of time to sign an international test-ban treaty in the fall of 1996 that is now being negotiated in Geneva. France, Russia, Britain, and the US have observed a self-imposed morato- rium since 1992. The Chinese government has never accepted a moratorium, and conducted its most recent test last month.

Yesterday the Western European Union debated a resolution to call on France to review its decision on nuclear testing "as a gesture of good faith."

"This is not a debate about nuclear weapons," said British representative Peter Hardy. "France has decided to disregard the views of the Pacific nations, as if the South Pacific doesn't matter."

French officials insist that the purpose of new testing would simply ensure the viability of the existing nuclear arsenal.

"For us, the resumption of tests is an act which fits into the steps toward peace," Mr. Millon told delegates. "France is still committed to signing a comprehensive test-ban treaty, expected to go into its final phase as of June-July 1996. We felt we should inform our European partners, but didn't feel we needed to ask beforehand."

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