French Nuclear Testing in the South Pacific

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, September 1992 | Go to article overview

French Nuclear Testing in the South Pacific


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


IN April France announced the suspension for a year of its nuclear testing in the South Pacific. The decision has been welcomed by South Pacific nations, and peace and environment groups. It represents another turning point in an eventful saga which has gone on for a quarter of a century.

France began its nuclear weapon testing programme in North Africa during the 1950s. Algeria became independent in 1962 and so the programme had to be moved. It was transferred to two small atolls, Moruroa and Fangataufa, located in the south-east comer of the Taumotu archipelago in French Polynesia.

French governments come and go. But the development of nuclear weapons has continued.

France has the right to defend itself and it sees nuclear weapons as a crucial way of doing so. France has 600 nuclear weapons (about twice the size of the UK or China), with a total of 135 megatons. This is a minute fraction of the total US/USSR/CIS 15,000 megatons. But it is a miniature version of the super powers' nuclear systems, with a mixture of strategic bombers, silo-based ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The system is sufficient to destroy key cities in the USSR/CIS.

The French nuclear programme is an independent one. The UK, by contrast, relies heavily on US research and equipment. Part of the cost of independence is nuclear testing.

The French nuclear programme has considerable support at home. The tendency of British left-wing politicians to be in favour of unilateral disarmament, is not replicated in France. President Mitterand, the socialists and the Communist Party are all supporters of both the nuclear deterrence theory and the independent French nuclear system.

The South Pacific opposition to French nuclear testing has been consistent. It has been one of the few issues to unite governments and politicians across the political spectrum. When the testing began, Australia and New Zealand were both governed by conservative parties and both governments sent formal notes of protest. Both raised the issue at the 1972 UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm.

The 1972 election of Labour Parties to both nations resulted in increased pressure on France. In May 1973, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji took the problem to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the first time any of those nations had used the ICJ. France considered the ICJ to have no jurisdiction over France's military security and so expected the ICJ to declare itself unable to deal with this complaint.

In June 1973, France lost the first round when the ICJ ruled itself competent to handle the case. It gave the three nations an interim measure of protection by ordering France to avoid nuclear tests in the South Pacific which might cause the deposit of radioactive fall-out on their territories. France announced that it would boycott future proceedings and would go ahead with atmospheric testing.

But while the ICJ was still working on its judgment on the substantive issues, France announced that it would stop atmospheric testing and would conduct all tests after June 1974 underground. In December 1974, the ICJ said that the case was closed because France was testing underground.

The French decision took the heat out of a difficult political situation. The boycott of the ICJ undermined France's credibility in complaining about the behaviour of other nations. It also eased the mounting pressure on the Australian Government. The Australian Council of Trades Unions captured the public mood by having union boycotts |blacking' French shipping into Australia, disrupting French trade, tying up French mail, and cutting telephone communications. Australian peace activists had their own campaign of disrupting the daily life of French officials. The campaign began to get out of hand. The boycotts upset Australia's international diplomatic and trade obligations.

Even more significantly, the campaign could have escalated into a confrontation with Australia's allies. …

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