The first thing to say about the affair of the Greenpeace nuclear-protest ship sunk by an explosion in New Zealand, in which a photographer on board was killed, is that, for all the character of a crazy intrigue, it is not trivial or funny. That a "couple" apprehended in a suspicious van were French intelligence agents, as were three other Frenchmen (all frogmen) who disappeared from a suspicious second ship in the harbor, as was a sixth French citizen who somehow was aboard the Greenay suggest the sort of thing you read about on the beach, but the reality is much graver.

Greenpeace specializes in designing theatrical ways to dramatize its pro-environment, anti-nuclear principles. It had planned to have the Rainbow Warrior lead a flotilla from Auckland to the Pacific atoll, Mururoa, where the French do their underground nuclear testing. Unremarkably, the French were not pleased. According to an official report, the government dispatched an intelligence team to keep an eye on Greenpeace. Whether the team was also meant to bomb the Rainbow Warrior is another question. The government says no, and the ostensibly independent civil servant it commissioned to investigate the affair cleared both the government and the secret service. More plausibly, New Zealand's prime minister found the report "incredible and transparent."

In France there is a school, with its admirers elsewhere, holding that reasons of state must prevail. Since the French nuclear force is popular across the political spectrum, criticism of the Greenpeace affair has centered less on the audacity of invading the sovereignty of a friendly country to scuttle an apparently legitimate demonstration than on the embarrassment of getting caught or, in any event, getting blamed.The political and bureaucratic ramifications of the affair inside France seem to be of more interest to the sophisticates in Paris than considerations of right and wrong and law.

New Zealand has a healthier attitude. It is outraged, it is protesting to Paris, and it is holding two of the French spies on murder and arson charges and seeking the others.