How the Refusal to Buy from France Helped End Nuclear Testing in the Pacific
French nuclear testing in the South Pacific was widely condemned, and resulted in a mass boycott of French products. Helen Caldicott, an Australian paediatrician and veteran anti-nuclear campaigner, describes the global movement that forced France to stop testing its nuclear arms.
ICAN: How did the idea for a boycott of French products come about?
Helen Caldicott (HC): The idea spontaneously arose out of a very disturbed populace. It was the obvious thing to do. It wasn’t orchestrated at all – it was like spontaneous combustion. People had an almost anaphylactic reaction to all things French. There were whole pages full of letters to the editor opposing the nuclear testing. They got more calls at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital – where I was working – about French nuclear tests than they got about patients. There were demonstrations in the city streets involving hundreds of thousands of people.
ICAN: What did the boycott involve? What were people asked to do?
HC: People stopped buying French wine, French cheese and other French products. Postal workers wouldn’t deliver French mail. It was full-on. The boycott was, at every level, a personal expression of how people felt. People were really angry with the French. Within nine months, 75 per cent of Australians opposed the French nuclear testing in the Pacific.
ICAN: What role did you personally play in the campaign?
HC: I was involved in mobilizing Australians to oppose the French nuclear tests. In response to public pressure, the Australian and New Zealand governments took France to the International Court of Justice, and they were forced to test underground.
I remember visiting the French government in Paris and asking them why they were doing it, and they said that their bombs were perfectly safe. We said, “Why don’t you blow them up in the Mediterranean?” Their faces turned bright white, and they said, “Mon Dieu, there are too many people living around the Mediterranean!”
For the first time in my life, I realized I was sitting next to wicked politicians who didn’t give a damn about kids in another part of the world getting leukaemia. At the time I was working as a paediatrician, so it was pretty profound. For me, this wasn’t a political issue; it was a medical issue.
ICAN: Is now the right time for a global nuclear divestment campaign?
HC: A global campaign now on nuclear weapons divestment would tie in beautifully with the Occupy Wall Street movement. We need to go after the banks that are financing the companies manufacturing and modernizing nuclear weapons, and hit them hard. People are profiting from this deadly industry, and must be stopped. We need to focus on the vested interests that are preventing us from achieving disarmament.