South Pacific Anger over French Nuclear Testing

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, February 1996 | Go to article overview

South Pacific Anger over French Nuclear Testing


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


A nuclear war would not decide who Was right - only who is left. Therefore, angry people throughout the South Pacific asked: why did France decide in June 1995 to resume nuclear weapon testing?

This article examines the three main reasons why South Pacific people have been angry about the resumption of the testing: many people had been lulled into a sense of false security over the end of the Cold War and there was the belief that nuclear weapons were now a thing of the past and so they were annoyed that their optimism was shattered; there is concern about the impact of the testing on disarmament negotiations; and the testing is itself a symbol of French arrogance and imperialism in the South Pacific. Ironically, the tests have brought some good: the public anger has been converted into a new public policy on arms control. The article ends with a comment on how the pro-French policy of the British Government has damaged British prestige in the region and boosted the movement towards republicanism in Australia and New Zealand.

The Cold War is over. To many people it seemed that it was now safe to forget about nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia had agreed on some disarmament treaties and it seemed as though nuclear weapons were a thing of the past. The peace movement in all countries had gone into a decline and there were few peace marches.

The June 13 announcement shattered that complacency. France had not, in fact, reduced any of its nuclear weapons. France had 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 United States/Russian 15,000 megatons. But it is a miniature version of the superpowers' 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 Russia.

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 corner of the Taumotu archipelago in French Polynesia. French governments come and go. But the development of nuclear weapons has continued.

Part of the South Pacific anger at the resumption of testing was disbelief that France needed nuclear weapons. After all, in mid-1995, the major threat to French defence forces was not nuclear. France had 3,600 soldiers in the Former Yugoslavia (some of whom had been held prisoner). Nuclear weapons were of no use in settling that conflict.

Nuclear weapons are of no military use to France. It is hard to imagine any situation in which France would need to use its current nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia no longer target each other. (We assume that their nuclear weapons are pointed at the seas - which makes the whales a nuclear target.) There is no chance of a deliberate World War III.

The great difficulty that Russia had had in getting control over Chechnya proves that the Russian military machine is full of rust. Russia could not invade Western Europe. France is safer today than it has been at any point this century. No one wants to invade France.

But nuclear weapons are still the world's main political status symbol. The Big Five of the United Nations - the United States, Russia, Britain, China and France - are the world's nuclear powers. Other countries may have nuclear ambitions (like Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea). But their stockpiles are minute compared with the Big Five's. Nuclear weapons are becoming even more important as a status symbol as Japan and Germany grow in economic strength. Of the Big Five, four are in relative economic decline; only China has a rapidly growing economy. Meanwhile, the two 'losers' of World War II - Germany and Japan - still have growing economies. They lost the war - but they have won the peace.

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