Britain urged France not to conduct controversial nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific while Queen Elizabeth II was in New Zealand, newly released government files showed on Tuesday. The then-prime minister, John Major, told president Jacques Chirac nuclear tests would put the monarch in an “invidious position”, as nearby New Zealand’s head of state, according to the declassified documents from the National Archives.
The underground tests were conducted on Moruroa atoll in French Polynesia in the southern Pacific Ocean, triggering outrage in many countries, including New Zealand. France began a series of what turned out to be six tests on September 5, 1995, with subsequent tests on October 1 and October 27.
Queen Elizabeth was visiting New Zealand from October 30 to November 13, taking in the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) in Auckland.
Britain, a fellow nuclear weapons state and United Nations Security Council member, supported the French tests. A Foreign Office confidential note said: “We should make a strong pitch to the French, cashing in our support for their position on testing.”
A note ahead of Major’s July 29 lunch with Chirac said the objective was “to press President Chirac strongly to avoid nuclear tests in early November, during CHOGM and the visit of HM The Queen to New Zealand. “Risk of particular embarrassment to HM The Queen,” it warned.
A summary of the lunch talks, marked secret, recorded the prime minister telling Chirac that the tests would bring some “very difficult discussion” at CHOGM. It would cause a problem not just for Major but “even more importantly for The Queen who, as the constitutional monarch of New Zealand as well as the UK, would be put in an invidious position”.
Unlike Britain, New Zealand’s government was vehemently opposed to the tests. “Chirac took out his pen. ‘I will see to it’,” the summary recorded. Chirac had announced eight tests but said France would stop at seven, earlier than the advertised date of May.
He said France appreciated Britain’s support and wondered why France was getting “such a hammering” when China received hardly any criticism for doing the same, if not more, the summary said.
Major said that if other EU leaders tried to raise the issue at their next meeting, he would intervene first, support France and tell them that “if, God, forbid, the chips were ever down”, they would presumably not object to being under the French and British nuclear umbrella, the note recorded.
Much of the CHOGM summit was dominated by condemnation of France’s actions, with Major the odd man out. The tests resumed after CHOGM on November 21, with two more on December 27 and January 27. By way of thanks for his support, Chirac phoned Major to tell him the tests were over, before making a public announcement.
Notions that Chirac visit nuclear weapons facilities in Britain during his 1996 state visit were quickly shut down. Major’s private secretary, Roderic Lyne, considered the suggestion from Chirac’s senior military adviser that the pair tour a nuclear submarine as “extraordinarily ill-timed”.
Separate documents show diplomatic back and forth about the appropriate level of pomp for Chirac’s state visit to Britain, a year into his presidency in 1996. Papers detail efforts to invite France footballer Eric Cantona to the prime minister’s banquet at Hampton Court Palace, despite the Manchester United midfielder being banned.
Cantona was sanctioned the year before for an outrageous kung-fu kick on a fan. At the banquet, guests were served venison, but diplomats arranged for Major to get steak—at the height of concern about “mad cow disease” on both sides of the Channel.