HAMBURG: How does citizen protest and government action relate in modern democracies? Those seeking an answer may find it in the recent international outcry over the new series of French nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific.
Last June, shortly after the successful international agreement on the indefinite extension of the Treaty banning the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the newly elected French president Jaques Chirac announced that France would conduct a final series of tests on Muroroa Atoll. France was not the only nuclear weapons state to announce new tests; China, too, made clear it would proceed with its current programme. Yet it was on France that international anger homed in. While most governments, with the exception of those in the region, were embarrassed but remained silent, protest groups were angry and loud, taking to the streets and, around Muroroa itself, even to the waters.
These protests will flare up again and again until the series will end in early 1996. They have been unable to stop the French programme. Yet they nevertheless have had a remarkable success. Not only did France commit herself to a watertight international ban on all nuclear explosions, to be agreed by international treaty at the end of 1996. The French government also stated that in the future France's nuclear forces would no longer have an exclusively national function but could be used for the protection of her partners in the European Union as well. While those hints have not yet gone beyond generalities, they nevertheless expose a need which France in the past has rarely revealed, the need for partners, even in the nuclear field.
Would France have made these moves in the absence of international protest? Probably not. The government in Paris, which should have known better, was taken utterly by surprise by the intensity of international hostility to its nuclear objectives, and, as governments do in such situations, has tried to limit the damage.