France Resumes Nuclear Testing

French president Jacques Chirac shocked the world with his announcement that, after a three-year moratorium, France would undertake a series of eight underground nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific. Massive criticism, protests, and boycotts forced Chirac to end the series at six tests early in 1996, when he made it clear that France was willing to join other nations in the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

Summary of Event

In the decades after World War II, nuclear weapons, their proliferation, testing, and deployment, had profound political and environmental effects. France, a nuclear power since 1960, had conducted thirty-one nuclear tests in the 1960’s, sixty-nine in the 1970’s, and ninety-two in the 1980’s, many of them in the Mururoa Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago east of Tahiti. Protests against these tests occurred in the Pacific islands most directly affected by them as well in such Pacific Rim countries as Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. So seriously did French officials take these protests that, when Greenpeace sent its boat the Rainbow Warrior
Rainbow Warrior (ship) to New Zealand prior to its travel into the test area, French secret service agents, acting under authorization of President François Mitterrand, destroyed the vessel with two bombs, killing one person aboard. Some scholars claim that the nuclear tests and the Rainbow Warrior incident led to a deterioration in French international relations, whereas others assert that, through apologies and financial assistance, French politicians were able to mitigate the region’s antinuclear sentiments. Nuclear weapons;testing
France;nuclear weapons testing
[kw]France Resumes Nuclear Testing (Sept. 5, 1995-Jan. 27, 1996)
[kw]Nuclear Testing, France Resumes (Sept. 5, 1995-Jan. 27, 1996)
Nuclear weapons;testing
France;nuclear weapons testing
[g]Europe;Sept. 5, 1995-Jan. 27, 1996: France Resumes Nuclear Testing[09300]
[g]Oceania;Sept. 5, 1995-Jan. 27, 1996: France Resumes Nuclear Testing[09300]
[g]France;Sept. 5, 1995-Jan. 27, 1996: France Resumes Nuclear Testing[09300]
[g]Polynesia;Sept. 5, 1995-Jan. 27, 1996: France Resumes Nuclear Testing[09300]
[c]Government and politics;Sept. 5, 1995-Jan. 27, 1996: France Resumes Nuclear Testing[09300]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 5, 1995-Jan. 27, 1996: France Resumes Nuclear Testing[09300]
[c]Science and technology;Sept. 5, 1995-Jan. 27, 1996: France Resumes Nuclear Testing[09300]
Chirac, Jacques
Juppé, Alain
Mitterrand, François
Major, John
Keating, Paul

During the Cold War, the French government, whether it was conservative, centrist, or socialist, had a consistent nuclear weapons policy. Apart from any alliances, the French insisted on maintaining an independent nuclear force capable of inflicting unacceptable damage to any potential nuclear aggression, but in the 1990’s, when the newly non-Communist Russia no longer posed a threat to European nations, many politicians, military leaders, and scientists urged France to change its nuclear policy. Mitterrand, however, fearing nuclear attacks from terrorists or unstable nuclear nations, reconfirmed France’s traditional nuclear doctrine, though he did institute a moratorium on nuclear tests. However, this moratorium ended when, shortly after becoming president, Jacques Chirac stunned the international community by announcing, on June 13, 1995, that France would conduct a series of eight nuclear tests in the Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls.

Because of intense national and international criticism, Chirac had to defend his decision. He argued that the security and reliability of France’s nuclear deterrent was at stake, and that, as president, he had the duty to protect the French people. France was also in the process of reducing and modernizing its nuclear arsenal. For example, the French were developing a new submarine-launched ballistic missile system and a powerful computer system that would enable scientists to simulate how their new weapons would perform. When critics countered that France could acquire this technology and knowledge from the United States, Chirac reiterated his nation’s customary position of nuclear independence from the East and West, though some saw his arguments as influenced by his political need to appease right-wing Gaullists, who viewed nuclear weapons as a way of showing the world that France was still a major power.

Even before the tests began, national and international pressure intensified on French officials to revoke their decision. A poll in August of 1995 revealed that 63 percent of French citizens opposed the tests. These negative opinions were undoubtedly influenced by the worldwide criticism of French actions in the previous month when commandos stormed, teargassed, and forcibly removed Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior II from waters near the nuclear test sites. Protests against the tests broke out in Tahiti, where officials called the French government “arrogant” and “out of touch” with the rest of the world. Both houses of the Japanese parliament went on record as strongly demanding that France abrogate its decision to reopen testing. When Prime Minister Paul Keating of Australia voiced his country’s strong opposition, a French diplomat stated that France could live without being liked by the Australians.

A French tugboat (right) approaches the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior II to prevent it from reaching the South Pacific atoll of Mururoa, where France planned to resume nuclear testing. Navy commandos stormed, teargassed, and forcibly removed the ship from waters near the nuclear test sites on July 9, 1995.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In responding to these protests, French officials emphasized that the tests posed no danger to people of the Pacific region, because Mururoa was seventy-five miles from the nearest inhabited island. Furthermore, only twenty-five hundred people lived within a three-hundred-mile radius of the test sites, compared to several million people who lived within a similar radius of the American Nevada test sites. In attempting to blunt European criticism, French prime minister Alain Juppé put forward the idea of “concerted deterrence,” in which he tried to formulate a model of nuclear deterrence for the countries of the European Union. However, leaders in these countries were skeptical that the French tests were being carried out to buttress European security, because their countries were not consulted before the announcement of the tests. Furthermore, they feared that France was setting a bad example for such new nuclear countries as India and others that would follow.

Ignoring criticisms, diplomatic objections, and threats of boycotts or sanctions, the French tested a twenty-kiloton nuclear device on September 5, 1995, deep beneath the Mururoa Atoll. Riots broke out in Tahiti, and by the time that the French Foreign Legion had restored order, many people had been injured, and millions of dollars in property damage had resulted. Several Pacific island nations sundered relations with France. In Berlin, twelve thousand protesters stormed a French cultural center, although the German government, hoping to continue amicable Franco-German relations, refrained from expressing disapproval such as the Chilean government’s recalling its ambassador from Paris. Public protests also occurred in Japan, Australia, and the Philippines.

Although the political cost was mounting, France continued with its tests, and on October 1, 1995, French scientists detonated under the Fangataufa Atoll a gigantic nuclear bomb whose yield was estimated at 110 kilotons. Countries of the Pacific region reiterated their condemnation, but on October 27 a third, smaller nuclear device was detonated underneath the Mururoa Atoll. The furor over these tests continued as British prime minister John Major met with French leaders, during which he expressed his country’s support for the French tests. (Like the French, the British were developing a new class of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines.)

Despite an intensive letter-writing campaign instigated by Greenpeace, and despite objections by such influential organizations as the United Nations, the French tests proceeded as planned in November and December. On December 15, ten Southeast Asian countries signed a treaty in which each country agreed not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons and also not to test, transport, or station such weapons in their territories. On January 27, 1996, France conducted the sixth nuclear test in the series and its 197th since the country acquired the atomic bomb in 1960. By this time, scientists who were critical of the tests had discovered evidence that radioactive material had leaked away from the test sites, but French officials responded that the amounts were ecologically insignificant. Boycotts of French products, especially wines, continued in some Pacific Rim countries, and a French airplane manufacturer lost a $370 million contract with Australia.

Finally, on February 22, 1996, French officials, asserting that their goals had been achieved, abandoned the last two tests, and announced the end of France’s nuclear underground testing program. In September, several nuclear weapons states, including the United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom, signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (1996)[Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty] which required the ratification of forty-four nuclear-capable states to make it legally binding. However, this treaty was dealt a serious blow when, in 1999, the U.S. Senate voted to reject the treaty because it was unverifiable and because it compromised the reliability and safety of the American nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, despite French ratification of this treaty, the French continued to modernize their nuclear arsenal.


The French nuclear tests in 1995-1996 raised a number of issues, national and international, political and legal, ethical and environmental. Under the treaty of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), France had to provide data confirming that its tests met safety guidelines, but it only partially complied with this requirement. Nevertheless, the commission overseeing compliance concluded that the French tests did not create serious risks for technical personnel or the public.

After the tests, the French government claimed that their workers had returned the cleaned and restored atolls to civilian authorities, but independent scientists provided evidence that the test sites would be dangerously contaminated for many years. Greenpeace, drawing on data from previous tests and the work of such scientists as Jacques Cousteau, argued that every French test had produced environmental contamination. In fact, French scientists documented an increase in thyroid cancers in the populations inhabiting islands around the test sites. In the years after the tests, the French signed treaties on nuclear tests, nonproliferation, and the reduction in nuclear arms, but, like other nuclear nations, France’s policies continued to exhibit inconsistencies, most notably its recognition of the horrendous evil that the use of nuclear weapons would cause, while it retained and improved its nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons;testing
France;nuclear weapons testing

Further Reading

  • Diehl, Sarah J., and James Clay Moltz. Nuclear Weapons and Nonproliferation. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2002. Provides a historical introduction on nuclear weapons, chronology, biographies, relevant documents, and material on organizations. Excellent annotated bibliography on selected print and nonprint sources, glossary, and index.
  • Goldstein, Avery. Deterrence and Security in the Twenty-First Century: China, Britain, France, and the Enduring Legacy of the Nuclear Revolution. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. Analyzes the nuclear strategies of China, Britain, and France during the Cold War. Presents the controversial thesis that a totally denuclearized world would be more unstable than a selectively nuclearized one.
  • Heuser, Beatrice. NATO, Britain, France, and the FRG: Nuclear Strategies and Forces for Europe, 1949-2000. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Uses newly declassified documents as well as interviews to trace the development of nuclear weapons and strategies in Europe by focusing on the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Includes extensive bibliographic notes and index.
  • Larkin, Bruce. Nuclear Designs: Great Britain, France, and China in the Global Governance of Nuclear Arms. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1996. Written in the midst of France’s modernization of its nuclear forces, this book emphasizes that, in a post-Cold War world, the nuclear nations face an important choice among alternative nuclear futures. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.

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