FRENCH Adm. Philippe Euverte says he would rather be commanding an aircraft carrier with 10 battle ships than preparing to fend off a stream of small boats protesting French nuclear tests in the Pacific.
Still, he plans to stand firm against the incoming flotilla, which will be led by Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior 2. On Wednesday, the environmental group's flagship arrived in Tahiti, and its crew vowed to cross the 12-mile exclusion zone outside Mururoa atoll, site of France's planned underground nuclear tests that are to resume next month.
''Those ships that come to protest have the right to do so - outside of territorial waters,'' he says. ''If they sail past international waters, it will be viewed as an attack on French national sovereignty. First, we'll remind them of the rules; if they continue, we'll take control of the ship.''
The admiral, who commands French forces in Polynesia and the Pacific, concedes that France's record in dealing with Greenpeace protests against its nuclear testing program has not been inspiring.
In 1985, French intelligence agents blew up the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in the Auckland, New Zealand, harbor as it was about to set sail for the Mururoa test site. Exactly 10 years later, last month, French forces boarded Rainbow Warrior 2 outside of Mururoa with tear gas.
For Greenpeace, the boarding - and TV images accompanying it - was another public relations triumph. Admiral Euverte says France will handle its next encounter with Greenpeace with more savvy.
''Their means of dealing with news media is quite sophisticated,'' the admiral says of Greenpeace. ''They had [the] means set up for media to cover the boarding of Rainbow Warrior 2. It took some time to get out our version of what happened.''
Euverte says the boarding did not involve excessive force. Only 12 commandos stormed the boat, not 150 as originally reported. They brought along a doctor to tend to anyone hurt by the gas, he adds. ''Tear gas in France or Europe is not considered a weapon. It's a way to keep public order.'' Rainbow Warrior 2 was like an armored ship, he says. ''I don't believe we were violent. We were opposing aggressive violent behavior.''
The admiral says he welcomes New Zealand's decision to send a naval vessel with the flotilla, so far comprising about 30 ships: ''I know that New Zealand's Navy respects maritime law and will give good advice.''