France, Colonies Stay Mum on Nukes

Aid to S. Pacific territories dampens resolve of protests against testing

A FRENCH author calls it "the confetti of empire." Critics call it imperialism.

Since the end of World War II, the United States, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand have abandoned most of their colonies in the South Pacific, but France - at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in aid - has clung tenaciously to its tropical outposts. Now, the French government is clinging equally hard to its June 13 decision to resume nuclear testing on the Mururoa atoll in the South Pacific.

"They don't want to let go of anything. They had to be thrown out of Southeast Asia and they were thrown out of Algeria," says Prof. Grant McCall, a South Pacific expert at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. "[Aid] is a kind of velvet trap and the French are well aware of it."

The planned resumption of French nuclear tests resulted in the largest protests in French Polynesia since the 1970s, but observers expect the franc to prevent the French colony's antinuclear sentiment from translating into a pro-independence electoral ground swell.

At home, President Jacques Chirac is meeting little resistance to his decision. Several hundred European deputies and bureaucrats protested at the European Parliament yesterday where he was to address deputies. Antinuclear demonstrations are scheduled in front of French embassies across Europe on July 14, a day of national celebration in France.

But there are few democratic leaders more shielded from public opinion on such a question than the French president, who does not face another election for seven years. His parliamentary majority will not be tested at the polls for another three.

The last poll taken in France on the issue of nuclear testing, on the eve of the presidential vote in May, showed a public opposed to renewing tests. Some 56 percent of those surveyed called for abandoning them. But 45 percent of conservative voters said they supported limited nuclear testing to make a transition to simulated tests. This, the president consistently emphasizes, is the motive for new French tests.

Though an informal poll on the streets of Paris showed that many Parisians are concerned about Chirac's decision, polling organizations have few recent statistics available to articulate popular opinion. "This isn't the season for political polls in France," says Carin Marce of the SOFRES polling organization in Paris. "People are a little fed up after all these polls and elections. They cost money, people are headed off for vacation, and polling organizations aren't doing much more than very basic barometers."

"Lots of people oppose this move, but no one thinks protests will do any good," says a Paris newspaper salesman.

"I lived in Tahiti for 10 years. It's not as simple as they say. It's not just Greenpeace good, France bad," he says.

"When the military started coming, they brought a lot of money with them. It helped lots of people. But I still oppose the tests," the newspaper salesman adds.

Thanks to millions of dollars in French military and social spending, French Polynesia has a higher standard of living than most independent islands in the Pacific. This seems a fact the colony's 190,000 residents - who have consistently given the colony's only pro-independence party 15 percent of the vote - seem well aware of.

"They've got a good deal," says Professor McCall. "What can French Polynesia produce? How do they maintain their standard of living if the French leave?"

According to a 1990 study, 25 percent of French Polynesia's economy stems from exports and tourism, and 75 percent comes from French government spending. French military spending, a large chunk of which involves its nuclear testing program, accounts for 56 percent of government spending in the colony.

French officials say they are a helpful, popularly supported presence. France did grant independence to a number of its African colonies following World War II, and independence referendums held in the 1960s in France's Pacific colonies all lost.

The only recent exception has been New Caledonia, where critics accuse France of pouring in tens of millions of francs in aid following violent clashes between separatists and police in 1988. The 10-year Matignon accord, signed just after the clashes, guarantees a 1998 referendum on independence for the colony's 180,000 people that France may lose.

The US, the other main colonial power in the South Pacific, has also been no saint. It conducted postwar nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, and granted independence to several of its former colonies only recently.

"What people will remember in a year or two is that France, which has conducted far fewer tests than the Americans or the Russians, is stopping testing," says Camille Grand, a research fellow at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations.

THE region's handicap is its isolation. The South Pacific is one of the poorest regions in the world, with many of the more than 1 million people scattered on thousands of islands living off of whatever fish and food they can catch or grow.

Few rich nations appear inter-ested in taking on France's financial commitment to the area. Australia, which supplies its former colony, Papua New Guinea, with 25 percent of that government's budget, has been careful to attack French plans to resume nuclear testing while defending France's presence in the region.

"We want to see the French remain in the South Pacific," says an Australian government official. "If France were to withdraw from the region it would leave a higher demand on Australia."

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