Pacific rift: When nuclear tests made France a dirty word

When the French announced they were resuming nuclear tests in the Pacific in the winter of 1995, the Herald’s David Dale and Malcolm Knox went to war.

They asked in the Stay in Touch column “Pourquoi les Francais sont des connards?” and then preceded to skewer French problems in two world wars (‘they rolled belly-up and waited for the ns to save them”) and their renowned mistreatment of geese and frogs.

The late satirist Bob Ellis also joined the fray, attacking “the perfidious Frogs” as “a dense and arrogant people … soused on rough red wine from the age of three” and addicted to “snails, adultery and academic fashion”.

A protest in Sydney against French nuclear tests in the Pacific.

Meanwhile, in the more considered surrounds of the Keating cabinet, the 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior by French operatives, union outrage, peacenik panic and maintenance of uranium exports shaped ‘s response to Paris’ decision to start letting off bombs as far away as possible from La Belle France.

In a June 5 report to cabinet about possible resumption of French tests, the minister for foreign affairs, Gareth Evans and the minister for Pacific Island affairs, Gordon Bilney, said memories of the Rainbow Warrior were strong and New Zealand could be expected to postpone official visits and suspend military-related co-operation with France.

The ministers were concerned about looking as hard-nosed as New Zealand.

“New Zealand will obviously be hoping that ‘s response is similar to theirs,” the ministers said. “Wellington’s response may have an impact in if it is significantly stronger than ours.”

The ministers advised treading softly so as not to make nuclear testing dominant in the bilateral relationship and stop the French from taking retaliation.

“Three specific areas of current n interest could be targeted by the French: ‘s (United Nation’s) Security Council bid, market access for special n products such as kangaroo meat, and ‘s candidature for the position of secretary-general of the South Pacific Commission.”

On June 13, president Jacques Chirac announced the resumption of nuclear tests in the South Pacific.

The Keating government hardened up its act.

On June 22 cabinet decided to recall ‘s ambassador and n Defence Force staff from Paris, suspend n ship and aircraft visits to French territories and ban French ship visits and “not progress” collaboration on military logistics and equipment or exchange classified information.

Cabinet maintained the policy of not negotiating any new uranium contracts with France while it was conducting nuclear tests in the South Pacific.

“These measures are in line with the government’s consistent policy on this issue, which has been to respond in a measured, graduated way, leaving open every avenue for France to respond to South Pacific concerns,” an attachment to a cabinet minute noted.

Later, when 50 per cent of n Defence Industries was acquired by the n branch of a French engineering firm, presumably time had healed the Pacific rift with France.

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