French Wallets Take Hit in Protests Over Nuclear Tests

TWO women wheeled strollers into Cafe Nice here, glanced at the menu, and stalked out. ''We're not going to eat here,'' said one. ''You're all obviously French.''

Waitress Linda McWilliam says she explained that the owner was Italian, but to no avail. Since France announced June 13 that it would resume underground nuclear testing in the Pacific, an international consumer boycott against French goods has been gaining ground. Even Italian coffee shops with a French accent are getting caught up.

''No one expected so strong a public reaction,'' says Stephen Henderson, who writes on French nuclear testing at the Australian National University in Canberra, the capital. ''A real groundswell has developed.''

''France may have shot itself in the foot in relations with the Asia-South Pacific area,'' he adds. ''They have defense goals, but they also want to be accepted as a significant economic partner in the Asia-Pacific region. Now they've greatly handicapped themselves, and repercussions could be serious.''

Repercussions are extending all the way to Europe. A controversial ad sponsored by an antinuclear group began airing in British movie theaters this week showing a gunman aiming at French President Jacques Chirac before shooting a wine bottle in front of him. Informal boycotts have already cut into the worldwide sales of French wines.

This week, leaders of the environmental group Greenpeace floated the option of an international campaign targeting French state-owned firms, including Renault, Air France, and the bank Credit Lyonnais. In Austria, 700,000 people signed a petition protesting the French decision. According to polls, more than 90 percent of Germans oppose the tests. New Zealand took the early lead in protesting the tests, but Australia is making up for lost time.

Antinuclear protesters firebombed the French consulate in Perth in June, and Australian trade unions have stopped delivering mail to the French Embassy and Consular offices.

There have been no public polls measuring antinuclear sentiment, but letters published in national dailies and tabloids are running at 90 percent opposition, ''usually in strong and often in Francophobic terms,'' says Professor Henderson.

There are 180 French firms in Australia, employing about 40,000 people. Many French businesses hope to preempt protests. A French restaurant next to Melbourne's signature cricket grounds displays a prominent sign: ''Frenchy's Restaurant is opposed to nuclear testing.''

''Mail, faxes, and telephone calls to parliamentary offices protesting in Canberra run across the political spectrum,'' says one Foreign Ministry official. ''Members are telling us they've never encountered such an upsurge of popular opinion.''

Australian officials initially played down the announcement of new French tests, emphasizing instead the French pledge to sign a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty next year. But it stepped up protests after government approval ratings plunged.

On Aug. 1, Australia excluded France's Dassault Aviation from competition for a defense contract for jets, prompting a recall of the French ambassador to Paris. On Wednesday, Australia's Senate voted unanimously to condemn upcoming nuclear tests by France and the test China conducted earlier this month.

Australia is also joining New Zealand in its bid to reopen a 1973 case before the International Court of Justice at The Hague to prevent French nuclear tests.

At the same time, Australian diplomats insist the time has come to curb anti-French rhetoric. In recent speeches, Prime Minister Paul Keating and Foreign Minister Gareth Evans have emphasized that government protests are not motivated by hostility to France or its role in the Pacific.

''Still less have our actions been the result of any antipathy toward the French people or French culture,'' the prime minister said in a speech last week in Brisbane. ''It has concerned me whenever that line has been breached in public protests.''

Labor government officials are urging unions to break their freeze on mail deliveries to the French Embassy. ''It violates international conventions and just gives France a claim to victimhood, which they don't deserve in this case,'' says one Australian official.

Union officials shrug off the argument. ''Embassy officials asked for our help in restoring mail delivery,'' says Dennis Sennis, an official with the Australia Services Union. ''We told them we would look into it, hung up the phone, and then just went back to sleep,'' he added with a laugh.

Australian public protests against French nuclear testing - which began in the South Pacific 26 years ago - used to avoid blanket attacks on French culture.

''I participated in protests outside the French Embassy in the 1980s,'' says Greg Fry, of ANU'S School of Pacific and Asian Studies. ''We had champagne and croissants and asked [French diplomats] out to join us. We carried posters that attacked nuclear testing on one side, and listed all the things we liked about the French on the other. Now there's more heartfelt hatred.''

Antinuclear posters on the streets and in shop windows of Australian cities often feature mushroom clouds and skulls, leading some to conclude that the French tests will be above ground. ''The press has been irresponsible in how they've used that [mushroom cloud] graphic,'' says Prof. Karin von Strokirch of the School of Pacific and Asian Studies. ''It's just too powerful an image to resist.''

''It's difficult for government to be too forward in correcting misapprehensions, it looks like we're selling the French case'' said one Australian official, who asked for anonymity.

Australian Foreign Minister Evans says France has seriously underestimated public reaction. The French ''fail to appreciate that the end of the cold war really created in most people's mind a sense that the nuclear age was over, or at least was winding down; that we'd put behind us the nuclear arms race, we'd put behind us the nuclear balance of terror, and what this French decision did as really start to open all those cans all over again,'' he said in a speech this month.

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