France Forced Into Ground-Zero Test

Greenpeace ship boarded at nuke testing site

ACT 1 of the battle over resumed French nuclear testing in the South Pacific went exactly according to plan yesterday. France carried out its more overt, short-term military plan and Greenpeace its long-term, public-relations plan.

On the high seas, Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior II ship was quickly and efficiently stormed by 150 French commandos. On the airwaves, an unarmed woman activist screamed and coughed at the tear gas as masked men broke down her door with a sledgehammer.

''It seems to me that Greenpeace wrote a script,'' says Stewart Firth, an Australian expert on nuclear testing, ''and France played the part.''

By waiting a day to enter a 12-mile exclusion zone that French officials established around Mururoa Atoll - the site of France's new underground nuclear tests - Greenpeace got the biggest public-relations bang possible out of a well-planned public confrontation it could.

Along with footage of French soldiers storming the unarmed boat and audio sounds of activists screaming, TV viewers around the world were reminded of the day's unusual ''coincidence.'' Exactly 10 years ago, French intelligence agents sank the Rainbow Warrior I in New Zealand's Auckland harbor, killing a Portuguese photographer.

Courtesy of Greenpeace planning, TV producers easily spliced together images of 10 years of French-wrought havoc in the South Pacific that could make even Francophiles question French President Jacques Chirac's decision to temporarily resume nuclear testing.

Mounting a sustained campaign

Analysts say the key is whether Greenpeace can mount a sustained campaign, filled with images of earnest protesters being strongarmed by soldiers. Dramatic footage of Shell Oil Company employees blasting a Greenpeace helicopter with a water cannon this month helped to force the oil giant to succumb to Greenpeace demands that an offshore oil rig be dismantled on land instead of sinking it off the coast of Scotland.

The key is whether the protests will shift public opinion in France itself, not public opinion in the South Pacific.

''I think it will be just like a flea on an elephant's back,'' says Mr. Firth, a professor of politics at Sydney Macquarie University. ''But this is an issue in France itself. [Former President] Mitterrand ... has come out against [resumed nuclear testing].''

The resignation expressed by Firth and other analysts reflects the reality of France's - and the United States' - relationship with Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific. Yesterday's 10-year anniversary of Rainbow Warrior I's sinking is also a reminder of the region's relative powerlessness.

Shortly after the now-infamous sinking, the government of New Zealand was forced to release the two French agents it convicted for the sinking of the ship and death of the photographer after only one year in jail.

Bowing to French threats to cut off all New Zealand dairy trade with the crucial European market, New Zealand released the two agents to ''exile.'' Paris ended the agents' agreed-upon exile early and both have since returned to France.

''I think the testing is going to go on,'' says Karin Von Strokirch, an expert on French Polynesia at the Australian National University in Canberra, ''regardless of what actions government or non-government organizations [over here] take.''

Governments protest

The Australian and New Zealand governments have taken a variety of very public actions to protest the renewed testing.

Military purchases from France have been frozen and ambassadors temporarily recalled, but no steps that would endanger Australian or New Zealand exports to France have been carried out.

Government officials and analysts concede that France can live without Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific - with a total population of less than 30 million - far easier than the region can live without France.

''We haven't put any trade sanctions,'' says an Australian official who requested anonymity, ''and the government has said that is not option.''

But Greenpeace, which has been underestimated by governments and corporations before, is vowing there will be more well-timed actions and well-filmed confrontations to come.

Two other Greenpeace boats are currently near the testing site and activists in Australia are urging other groups to join them.

''I call upon all those who own a vessel to take it to Mururoa Atoll,'' environmental activist Ray Richmond told a crowd of 200 protesters outside the French consulate in downtown Sydney yesterday.

''We ask [Australian Prime Minister] Paul Keating to send a vessel in official protest and we ask him to support those who go in private vessels,'' the Rev. Mr. Raymond said.

Antinuclear activists across the South Pacific clamored for a boycott of French-made products.

Yesterday's storming was called ''outrageous,'' ''atrocious,'' ''heavy-handed,'' and the latest example of French ''arrogance'' and ''bully-boy tactics'' in the South Pacific.

Jon Walter, media coordinator of Greenpeace Australia, and other activists appeared to be ''on message'' - a public-relations term for sticking to a simple, but potent theme.

''The use of force was disproportionate and out of touch with reality. The use of tear gas was completely unnecessary,'' says Mr. Walter. ''This is definitely not over.''

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