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Greenpeace affair takes back seat to French ongoing nuclear tests

The French are forgetting the Greenpeace affair. New Zealand remains furious and is holding two French secret service agents in an Auckland prison. The agents, charged with bombing the Greenpeace ship ``Rainbow Warrior'' last July, face a court hearing in early November. One Greenpeace member was killed in the attack.

But instead of weakening France's resolve about nuclear testing in the South Pacific, the scandal has increased its determination to continue the testing. When the French exploded a nuclear device last week on the Mururoa atoll, Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, Defense Minister Paul Quiles, and a bipartisan group of French parliamentarians flew halfway around the globe to attend -- proof ``that France remains attached to nuclear disuasion,'' Mr. Fabius said.

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French politicians are avoiding stirring up controversy. During this week's television debate launching the campaign for March's legislative elections, Fabius and Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac ignored Greenpeace until the final moments, when Mr. Chirac briefly raised the issue. Fabius did not flinch. He attacked, accusing his opponent of wanting to destroy France's secret service and nuclear defense.

What a change from last month when Fabius was on the defensive, admitting that the French secret service was responsible for the ``Rainbow Warrior'' sabatoge. That revelation forced Defense Minister Charles Hernu to resign, and it looked as if the scandal might reach Fabius and President Franois Mitterrand as well.

The affair dominated the headlines, and Greenpeace threatened to keep it there by sending a new flotilla to the South Pacific where the French conduct their nuclear tests. Since then, however, everything has quieted down.

Recent polls show that the number of Frenchmen expressing confidence in President Mitterrand remains stable -- although at an admittedly low 38 percent. Yet this is the same level of support he received before the Greenpeace scandal exploded. Support for Fabius has risen one point to 48 percent.

The ruling Socialists felt confident enough last week to put resigned Defense Minister Hernu at the top of the party list in the Lyon region for next spring's parliamentery elections.

Analysts note a number of reasons why the scandal has faded.

Without sensational new revelations, the press lost interest. Serge July, editor of the daily Lib'eration, argues that to put story back on the front page, a Watergate-style smoking gun such as the White House tapes must be uncovered. He says finding such evidence ``will be very difficult.''

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Most Frenchmen probably don't want such evidence found, either. Andr'e Fontaine, editor of the daily Le Monde, says that, unlike Americans, the French expect their government to lie to them.

Mr. Fontaine backs up his statement by pointing to an opinion poll that shows that 61 percent of the French are convinced the government has not told them the entire truth about Greenpeace. The same poll shows that 64 percent of French think this is no reason for Fabius or Mitterrand to resign.

This attitude has let Fabius and Mitterrand focus the debate on the future of France's nuclear deterrent rather than on the the bombing of the ship.

Philippe Moreau Defarges, of the French Institute for International Affairs, says a strong majority of Frenchmen support the country's nuclear defense program, including its nuclear tests. At the same time, Greenpeace's ecologists are not popular here, and as a result few French questioned the government's motives or methods in stopping the organization from protesting the nuclear tests.

``No one wants to threaten the nuclear deterrent,'' Mr. Defarges says, predicting that ``the affair will fade.''

Only the New Zealand government and Greenpeace could prevent this process. The ecologists have sent protest boats to Mururoa, and over the weekend New Zealand officials restated the country's opposition to the French nuclear tests. New Zealand authorities also reaffirmed that the two French agents implicated in the bombing would be put on trial.

But such opposition doesn't faze the French. They quickly defused Greenpeace's opposition efforts to last week's nuclear tests.

And French diplomats remain confident that problems with New Zealand can be smoothed over. For one thing, they point out, New Zealand needs French help to gain access to European markets for its food exports. Mike Moore, New Zealand's minister of overseas trade and marketing, met French officials in Paris last week to discuss these issues.

``Moore's visit shows everything isn't blocked,'' says one French diplomat. Explaining that the two French agents wouldn't be put on trial before early next year, he added, ``we have a lot of time to talk.''

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