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The effects of French nuclear testing in the Pacific are still reverberating

A French atomic bomb test above the atoll of Mururoa in French Polynesia in 1971. Photo/Getty Images

Bill Ralston talks to a military man who spent time in the Pacific where France tested nuclear weapons.

Denis had a problem. We were sitting talking in a cafe in Collioure, a gorgeous coastal village on the Mediterranean’s Côte Vermeille, about as far south as you can go in France. The next stop is the Pyrenees and Spain.

Denis spoke almost no English and I can manage just un petit peu français. Nevertheless, he managed to ask where my wife and I were from. “Nouvelle-Zélande,” I proudly replied. There came a staccato burst of French, and it transpired that he had spent a lot of time in the Pacific, 20 or 30 years ago, in the military.

“Where?” I asked. “Hao Atoll,” he replied.

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“Oh,” I said, asking in franglais whether he’d come across Dominque Prieur and Alain Mafart, who were convicted for their part in bombing Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985, killing a photographer on board.

He didn’t bat an eyelid, and between his poor English and my rotten French, I worked out that he’d just failed to meet them.

“They were whisked away to Martinique extremely quickly,” he said. That was an interesting revelation, as I was not aware they had swapped tropical locales in the course of their brief “imprisonment”.

I have been to Martinique, in the West Indies, and have no doubt the pair found the surroundings more to their liking than the austere Hao military support base for France’s nuclear testing in the Pacific from the 1960s to the 1990s.

My wife interjected that I was, at the time, an organiser for Greenpeace, which produced a paroxysm of coughing and laughter from Denis. Actually, I was not, but in the 1970s I had helped earlier protest boats, including the Greenpeace III, the Fri and the Spirit of Peace, sail into the test zone to try to stop atmospheric blasts.

Once his coughing was under control, Denis mentioned his problem. He said his chest and knees were affected by radiation from those tests.

Thousands of French former servicemen and their families have been clamouring for compensation from the 193 nuclear tests that were performed in the Pacific. Only 11 are reported to have received a payout.

Documents that surfaced in 2013 showed that in 1974, one test exposed Tahiti and a vast area of the Pacific to 500 times the maximum allowable level of plutonium fallout.

A columnist on the now-defunct Auckland Star newspaper privately dismissed the protests as “farting into a hurricane”, a good metaphor, but not entirely accurate. These days, a quarter of a century since the testing ceased, the memory of the French nuclear tests has faded, but at the time they and the protests were big news.

TVNZ sent a correspondent to France to interview a French politician involved in the argument over the tests. “Monsieur Tricot,” he bellowed at the man who was barrelling past into a building, “Parlez-vous Anglais?” “Non,” was the curt reply. It was a long way to go at considerable expense to get a one-word interview.

A few days after my fractured chat with Denis, I had a more fluent conversation with a man in Paris, sitting in a cafe next to a large open-air market. I complimented him on his English.

He said he had picked it up travelling in Australia in the early 1990s. “In those days, they never really trusted me because I was French and the nuclear tests were going on,” he said.

In New Zealand, time and some superb Rugby World Cup clashes between the All Blacks and France over the past couple of decades have healed the wounds.

But how many thousands of French Polynesians and ex-servicemen, I wonder, might be suffering radiation effects from that time?  

This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.