IT is hard to imagine a modern Western leader with a greater flair for provoking international outrage than President Jacques Chirac of France. In just a matter of months he has managed to infuriate global opinion by his decision to resume nuclear testing in the South Pacific.
Appropriately dubbed ''le bulldozer'' by the French press, Mr. Chirac has committed himself to a series of tests on a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile. They are being conducted underground on two tiny coral atolls in what's called French Polynesia. Three tests have been completed; another three will follow in the coming months.
While Britain and the US have conspicuously refused to condemn France, other countries have been less inhibited. In Tahiti, local Polynesians rioted for two days after the first test in early September. Once the tear gas had dispersed, Paris was irritated to discover that a group of Japanese government officials, including the country's finance minister, had taken part in the demonstrations.
Japanese consumers, along with those in Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Norway, Sweden, and other countries, have joined an international boycott of French wines, food, and clothes to register their disapproval of French testing.
In Bucharest last month, politicians from more than 130 countries meeting as the Inter-Parliamentary Union roundly condemned France for pushing ahead with its nuclear program despite opposition. The European Parliament in Strasbourg has threatened to take the matter to the European Court of Justice.
All of this is welcome news to New Zealand, in whose front yard, figuratively speaking, the French have tested their nuclear devices since 1966. Kicked out of its first testing site in the Sahara in the early '60s, France set up a new facility at Muruora and Fangataufa atolls in Polynesia. From 1966 to 1974, it conducted dozens of atmospheric tests which spewed poisonous radioactive elements into the waters and the skies of the South Pacific.
In 1973, New Zealand and Australia took France to World Court in The Hague, accusing it of breaking international law by testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. France refused to allow the court to adjudicate on a matter of national security, but it did agree to conduct future tests underground. That stopped the most egregious form of testing but allowed the French to continue refining its nuclear systems.
By putting their shoulders behind regional efforts to dislodge the French nuclear presence, the Japanese, the Finns, the Swedes, the Germans, and others have given countries like New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji much-needed solace. The efforts of these Pacific countries against France have been a rather solitary exercise, and not without risk. Being an influential European power, France can use its economic muscle to make life difficult for countries like New Zealand, which needs access to the European Community to sell its farm exports.
Last month, French commandoes seized a number of Greenpeace vessels in the waters of Moruroa as they headed toward the test site. Just a few days ago in the Italian port of Brindisi French sailors boarded and tear-gassed the crew of yet another Greenpeace ship, which had painted antinuclear slogans along the hull of a French destroyer which was enforcing an arms embargo off the coast of the former Yugoslavia. Several weeks before this incident, the French agriculture minister, Philippe Vasseur, told the National Assembly in Paris that he expected people to boycott New Zealand kiwi fruit and strawberries in retaliation for protest activities.
Being the sons and daughters of mainly British settlers last century, New Zealanders may lack the political and social passions of Europe. But show them dirty tactics and they will bristle. It does not matter to them that Mr. Chirac has promised to terminate French nuclear testing next May after his latest series is completed. They believe that the tests were unnecessary in the first place and should have been conducted on mainland France, if, as military experts argued, they posed no danger to the environment.
A few days ago, French newspapers carried photographs of a huge crack along the coral rim of Mururoa atoll that the French Atomic Energy Commission has confirmed was caused by nuclear testing. Disclosures like these make the Kiwis and their neighbors in the Pacific nervous about long-term damage to fishing stocks, bird, and marine life.
For too long France has played the bully to regional critics and gotten away with it. But this time it has suffered a considerable diplomatic and economic cost. Whether it will be enough to stop French tests scheduled over the next few months is unclear. But at least New Zealand and its neighbors will have the satisfaction of knowing that by this time next year, the French nuclear presence in the Pacific will be gone. Given the hardship that went into making it happen, that will be a victory worth savoring.