The "Battle of the Pacific," which pitted the French Navy against the ecological organization Greenpeace under the eyes of the international press, appears to have ended without a shot being fired.
The prospect of Greenpeace protests against France's nuclear testing program in the South Pacific was taken so seriously here that it led to a preemptive sabotage of the environmentalist organization's flagship by the French secret service last July. That in turn triggered a major political scandal, threatening the Socialist government and forcing the resignation of the defense minister, Charles Hernu.
Undeterred by the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, the environmentalists put together a new protest flotilla made up of an oceangoing tug called the Greenpeace and four yachts. Ranged against the Greenpeace fleet were two French frigates, a transport boat, three tugs, two patrol planes and five helicopters, supported by a 1,500-man garrison on the French testing site of Mururoa Atoll.
In the event, partly thanks to a generator failure on board the Greenpeace, the explosive challenge to France's independent nuclear deterrent fizzled. The French defenses seemed out of proportion to the threat posed by the ecologists.
To paraphrase Britain's wartime leader Winston Churchill, seldom in the field of human conflict has it taken so many to accomplish so little against so few.
Here in France, the political steam appeared to be going out of the "Greenpeace affair," which dominated the headlines in August and September. The subject has been dropped by most politicians and newspapers, even though many unanswered questions remain about the role of President Francois Mitterrand's advisers in approving the sabotage operation and the subsequent cover-up.
The Greenpeace, which was forced to put into the port of Papeete in French Polynesia, later set sail for New Zealand together with its 34-man crew and bundles of leaflets calling for a "nuclear-free Pacific." Bad weather forced three of its accompanying yachts to abandon the protest campaign, leaving just one ketch, the Vega, and its five-man crew alone against the French fleet.
Accusing France's military leaders of making "the elementary mistake of overestimating the enemy," the Paris newspaper Liberation commented: "A minister has fallen, the government has vacillated, suspicion has fallen on the Elysee presidential palace . The secret services have been pruned. And all that just in order to prevent some ecologists from unfurling their banner under the Polynesian sky."
The French tests in Mururoa have been conducted underground since 1975. Apart from negative publicity for France, there was little actual danger that could be posed by Greenpeace unless its activists had managed to land on the atoll, which is inhabited by 3,000 French scientists and military personnel.
The final blow to Greenpeace's hopes of mobilizing world opinion against the nuclear tests was delivered by the French administrator of Polynesia, Bernard Gerard. In a shrewdly calculated act of chivalry, he offered to evacuate the international corps of journalists and photographers who had sailed with the Greenpeace, thus depriving the environmentalists of their single most important advantage.
All but one of the journalists, who were reported in the French press to be tiring of the expedition and the "inedible" macrobiotic food served up by their ecological hosts, accepted Gerard's offer.
During their six weeks on board the Greenpeace, the journalists saw little real action. One of the few newsworthy events was the delivery of a written notice from the captain of a French naval frigate warning that passage through French waters around Mururoa had been "temporarily prohibited" during the nuclear tests.
The French captain, clearly under orders to defuse a tense situation, offered the environmentalists a case of champagne the next time they met. His offer was accepted with equal politeness by the master of the Greenpeace, Jonathan Castle, a seasoned campaigner against nuclear weapons.
The evaporation of the protests is a disappointment for news organizations that had invested about $250,000 in a plan to use a Cessna light airplane to transmit coverage of the expected naval battle around the world. Greenpeace granted exclusive television rights to show its side of the battle to Gamma-TV, which arranged to feed pictures to major networks in the United States and Europe.
To prevent Greenpeace from getting all the publicity, the French Navy provided facilities for a rival press corps aboard the frigate Balny. Journalists were also taken to the French testing center on Mururoa for interviews with French officers.
The French strategy was described by Lt. Col. Jean Rigouz of the Foreign Legion as aimed at "presenting an iron fist in a velvet glove."
Barring a major upset, the next important episode in the Greenpeace affair will take place Nov. 4, when two French secret agents arrested by the New Zealand police will face a preliminary hearing. France has said the actual bombing of the Greenpeace boat, the Rainbow Warrior, was carried out by other agents.