Let me count the ways

November 24, 1995

Ragnar Lofstedt looks at how France might defend its nuclear tests.

France's insistence on continuing its programme of nuclear testing in the South Pacific has met with worldwide condemnation. Its programme, which this week saw a fourth underground nuclear test at a blast site in French Polynesia, is widely believed to be the final stage of the development of a nuclear warhead for the TN 75 missile to equip the Triomphant submarine.

Rioting and protests, as well as the results of European opinion polls, all suggest that the tests are extraordinarily unpopular with the public. Within the UK academic community there was some protest even before the testing began: petitions were circulated via email and financial collections made for Greenpeace.

The French government has tried to counter some of this criticism by labelling as hypocrites some of their Western counterparts. One of the most vociferous protesters, Australia, exports weapon-grade uranium to France. French government officials argue that if the Australians really feel so strongly about nuclear testing, they should stop these exports.

But the full justification of the French government's position has received scant publicity. Why is France continuing with the tests (up to seven more are planned before the end of May) in the face of such a global outcry?

In trying to understand the French government's stance one has to assume that France has the right to have a nuclear deterrent as part of its defence strategy. I think that six strands to the French argument can then be identified.

First of all there is the terrorist argument: France points out that some military regimes which may be developing nuclear weapons would show little compunction about using them. Therefore, the French argue, an effective nuclear capability is needed to deter nuclear terrorism against France.

Second, there is the question of the nuclear testing programmes of other nations. The French government can point to the Chinese nuclear arsenal. Query: why does the international community not make the same fuss about China's tests? According to the French, reluctance to criticise China stems from the West's anxiety about jeopardising its investments in the country. Moreover, the Chinese reaction to international criticism is much more difficult to predict.

Third is the safety argument: French military experts argue that all nuclear weapons need to be updated at least every 20 years because technology dates and in some cases deteriorates. The specialised technology of the French nuclear arsenal makes it difficult to develop simulation exercises as other nuclear powers have done, say the French, so nuclear weapons testing is needed. However, by carrying out these tests, some French experts believe that they will be able to perfect laboratory simulations, making nuclear testing unnecessary in the future.

Fourth is the argument about the necessity of a nuclear deterrent for Europe. According to some French Gaullist politicians, a European military force would be preferable to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, because it is not wise to trust the Americans with the defence of Europe. Nuclear weapons would play a part in this European force, and in order to discourage nuclear proliferation, they should be the exclusive responsibility of France and the United Kingdom. Such a development would of course strengthen France's military might within Europe, - an outcome some French politicians would favour.

Fifth is the question of France as a world power. Many French still see themselves as part of a major world power, although in fact that status is declining. Some government officials are reluctant to give up a nuclear deterrent, which would happen de facto if they stopped developing and testing nuclear technologies. This would further undermine their status and deny them membership of the world powers nuclear club.

The final argument is that testing is beneficial for other nations with nuclear programmes: French politicians feel that their programme should be supported rather than criticised. Research indicates that actual testing is more accurate than large-scale computer simulation exercises. The French are understood to be willing to share their testing data with some of their allies For example, by pooling information with data collected after the Los Alamos tests in the United States, the French are contributing to the safety and potential effectiveness of the nuclear weapons in the West. This, they argue, increases the security of both Europe and North America.

Such arguments do carry weight and go some way towards explaining why the French have decided to resume their nuclear testing programme. However, there is one gaping hole in the French government's defence: the testing is being conducted in French Polynesia and not in France. If the French had opted to conduct the tests in, say, Provence, the protests would have been much less vociferous and the government's rationale that much more acceptable.

Ragnar Lofstedt is a lecturer at the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey.

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