France, Colonies Stay Mum on Nukes Aid to S. Pacific Territories Dampens Resolve of Protests against Testing

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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. …