France Resumes Nuclear Tests | The Canadian Encyclopedia


France Resumes Nuclear Tests

In the end, a few rubber dinghies could not prevent a nuclear explosion more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 18, 1995

France Resumes Nuclear Tests

In the end, a few rubber dinghies could not prevent a nuclear explosion more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The earth trembled and the blue waters of the South Pacific frothed a metallic white last week as the French government detonated a 20,000-ton atomic weapon beneath the ocean floor - the first time in three years a western country has carried out such a test. Hours before the explosion, French police at the Mururoa atoll test site arrested two Greenpeace protesters who had raced through security lines in inflatable boats. After five days of wetsuit warfare, it seemed that Paris had triumphed over the demonstrators. But to France's dismay, the activists had already whipped up a frenzy of outrage that spread around the globe, souring diplomatic and trade relations. "There are millions of people out there helping us," said Thomas Schulz, a Greenpeace campaign co-ordinator in Tahiti. "Even though we couldn't stop the first test, I hope we can stop the second test because the outrage around the world will be so great."

Outrage turned to rampage in Papeete, capital of French Polynesia, as political groups seeking independence from France led thousands in a night of furious rioting. Sixteen people were injured as protesters battled police, looted stores and took over the airport, causing more than $15 million in damage. But even before the nuclear blast, in Singapore and Vancouver, in Moscow and Lima, tens of thousands had taken to the streets in anger over the French action. Many denounced it as an unnecessary threat to world peace and the environment at a time when the Cold War concept of nuclear deterrence has become an outdated strategy. In Taiwan, student protesters dressed up as cockroaches, warning that the crawly insects would be the only survivors in a post-nuclear world. A 33-year-old Spaniard went so far as to hijack a French plane from the island of Majorca to Geneva, where he surrendered.

French politicians were prepared for civic protest. But they were taken aback by the level of condemnation that came from other governments, labelling the international reaction "hysterical." New Zealand and Chile recalled their ambassadors. Government ministers from both Sweden and Japan attended a protest march in Tahiti, sparking the most severe of the diplomatic rows. "I think this is nothing but a terror for us," Japan's finance minister, Masayoshi Takemura, told the marchers.

While others cried apocalypse, French engineers were relaxing on deck chairs as the blast went off. They immediately broke into applause and proclaimed the test a success, adding they detected no radiation at the water's surface. France has long refused to allow independent testing of radiation levels around its nuclear test sites. Officials have claimed that the basalt rock that forms the bedrock in the Mururoa lagoon prevents atomic waste from seeping into the ocean - even though the intense heat transforms the rock into a molten glob of radioactive glass. Some scientists dispute the French assurances, saying leaks can occur within 10 to 100 years. More alarmingly, health workers have reported signs of radioactive illness among native populations in neighboring islands during three decades of testing. Since 1966, France has conducted 176 test blasts, at the Mururoa and neighboring Fangataufa atolls.

No wonder the most damning protests came from the Pacific region. In Australia this summer, people have thrown rocks at French restaurants. One angry student firebombed the French consulate in Perth. Retailers complained of a 30-per-cent drop in sales of French cars and wine. One report surfaced last week of glass being found in a supermarket package of French cakes. Prime Minister Paul Keating responded to public indignation by barring French firms from bidding for Australian defence contracts. After a tit-for-tat recall of envoys between the two countries, French ambassador Dominique Girard accused Australia of "frog bashing." Demanded Girard: "Is France really an international criminal? Did we bomb Hiroshima?" Keating, in turn, called the French blast a "stupidity."

In nearby New Zealand, Prime Minister Jim Bolger accused France of "arrogant colonialism." He also filed suit against France at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Even smaller states in the region stood firm in their opposition. Western Samoa and Tuvalu boycotted the South Pacific Games held this summer in Tahiti. In Fiji, the hotel association boycotted French wine and other goods. And a traditional dugout canoe from the Cook Islands paddled to join the Greenpeace-led 25-boat flotilla that gathered last week at the edge of Mururoa's 12-mile exclusion zone.

But it was the criticism from Japan - an important French trading partner and the only nation yet to suffer a nuclear attack - that had a discernable impact in Paris. Finance Minister Takemura's "terror" remark, coming 50 years since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, carried a particular sting. Chirac fought back by cancelling a planned visit to Japan next year. He also scrapped plans for a state visit to France by Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson for that country's support of the Tahiti march.

France's other allies were muted in their response. The United States "regretted" the test, but focused its diplomatic efforts a week earlier, persuading Paris to delay detonation by a few days to avoid embarrassing President Bill Clinton while he was in the Pacific on a trip to Hawaii. Britain, itself a nuclear power, came closest to defending France's right to do what it sees fit. "French nuclear tests are a matter for the French," said a British defence official. "It is not for us to comment on French requirements and how they choose to meet them." German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said he had conveyed his objections privately to Chirac but would not jeopardize Franco-German relations by pressing the issue. Canadian Defence Minister André Ouellet was even more restrained, remarking generally on Ottawa's desire to see an international ban on nuclear testing. The loud silence of Western powers smacked of a double standard, given international efforts to stop developing countries from acquiring nuclear arms, and the widespread criticism of China for carrying out two nuclear tests in May and August.

In Paris, the left-wing daily tabloid Libération printed a retouched photo that showed half of Chirac's face burned by radiation. And diver Jacques Cousteau, 85, one of the country's most popular figures, came out strongly against the test. Said Cousteau: "We have banned biological, bacteriological and chemical weapons. I fail to see why even more dangerous weapons such as nuclear weapons cannot be outlawed." But while polls show that 60 per cent of French voters oppose the tests, an equal number support their country's desire to remain a nuclear power, making it unlikely that last week's blast will affect Chirac's domestic support.

The French president has sworn that the current series of tests mark the end of an era, not the beginning. Chirac says they are designed to perfect computer simulation programs that will make further tests unnecessary, allowing the country to sign an international treaty banning nuclear testing, which is expected to be finalized in Geneva in 1996. Like every other French leader since Charles de Gaulle, he considers nuclear deterrence to be at the heart of France's foreign policy, and a vital symbol of the country's claim to great power status. Chirac says the current tests are therefore "indispensable" - although he conceded to a television audience last week that France may detonate fewer bombs and complete the testing program earlier than planned.

That in itself marked progress for Greenpeace, which has been on something of a roll recently. In June, the environmental group forced Shell UK Ltd. to cancel plans to junk an obsolete oil rig, the Brent Spar, by sinking it in the North Sea. Greenpeace admitted last week that it had erred in calculating the amount of oil left on the rig. But that did little to damage support for the group. Founded in 1971 by a handful of fringe protesters, after a spontaneous drive to stop U.S. nuclear tests near Alaska, Greenpeace is now a force to be reckoned with.

Getting there has not been easy. In a 1985 fight over nuclear tests, Paris ordered the sinking of the original Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior, in a New Zealand harbor, killing one man. Last week, the French navy seized its successor, Rainbow Warrior ii, and another Greenpeace vessel, forcing its members to continue their efforts in motorized dinghies. "A protest group running up against the French navy obviously can't stop the tests," said Greenpeace's Schulz. "But it's not just about two rubber inflatables. It's about creating public protests and adding to the number of governments around the world who oppose the nuclear tests." As French technicians at the Mururoa test site prepared for the second explosion in the series, Greenpeace members redoubled their efforts to show that the power of protest can overcome the force of nuclear deterrence.

Maclean's September 18, 1995