by Henry Samuel, Paris
France has officially acknowledged for the first time that French Polynesians were effectively forced into accepting almost 200 nuclear tests conducted over a 30-year period, and that it is responsible for compensating them for the illnesses caused by the fallout.
The French parliament issued the much-awaited admission in a bill reforming the status of the collectivity of 118 islands in the South Pacific, with MPs saying the change should make it easier for the local population to request compensation for cancer and other illnesses linked to radioactivity.
From 1966 to 1996, France carried out 193 nuclear tests around the paradise islands, including Bora Bora and Tahiti, immortalised by Paul Gauguin. Images of a mushroom cloud over the Moruroa atoll, one of two used as test sites along with Fangataufa, provoked international protests.
Charles De Gaulle and subsequent presidents had thanked French Polynesians for their role in assuring the grandeur of France by allowing it to conduct the tests.
But in the parliamentary bill, France acknowledges that the islands were “called upon” – effectively strong-armed – into accepting the tests for the purposes of “building (its) nuclear deterrent and national defence”.
It also stipulates that the French state will “ensure the maintenance and surveillance of the sites concerned” and “support the economic and structural reconversion of French Polynesia following the cessation of nuclear tests”.
Patrice Bouveret of the Observatoire des armements (Armaments Observatory), an independent organisation that has been assessing the impacts of French nuclear testing in Polynesia since 1984, welcomed the reform.
“It recognises the fact that local people’s health could have been affected and thus the French state’s responsibility in compensating them for such damage. Until now, the entire French discourse was that the tests were ‘clean’ – that was the actual word used – and that they had taken all due precautions for staff and locals.”
However, he said it was a “scandal” that it had taken 23 years for France to officially recognise its responsibility, and said there was nothing in the law on the ill-effects on future generations.
Separatist Polynesian MP Moetai Brotherson also expressed scepticism, saying the reform offered no concrete steps towards financial reparation.
But for the Polynesian MP Maina Sage, the reform amounted to “recognition of clear acts of compensation” and “the fact that this should translate into support on a sanitary, ecological and economic level.”
Last year, French Polynesian President Edouard Fritch admitted that its leaders had lied to the population for three decades over the dangers of nuclear testing.
“I’m not surprised that I’ve been called a liar for 30 years. We lied to this population that the tests were clean. We lied,” Mr Fritch told officials in filmed footage.
This led to 1,500 cases of compensation for military and other personnel at the Polynesian nuclear sites. But a clause suggesting the tests were of “negligible risk” for the rest of the population made it well-nigh impossible for them to apply, despite disproportionate rates of thyroid cancer and leukemia among Polynesia’s 280,000 residents. Cancer rates are 30 per cent higher than average. To date, only a few dozen have received compensation.
In 2016, then-President Francois Hollande acknowledged during a visit that the tests did have consequences for the environment and residents’ health but also talked up the importance of the tests for France as a nuclear power.
Three years earlier, declassified defense ministry papers exposed them as being far more toxic than previously acknowledged amid reports that the whole of French Polynesia had been hit by levels of plutonium in the aftermath of the testing. Tahiti, these suggested, was exposed to 500 times the maximum accepted levels of radiation.
Last year, French Polynesia’s pro-independence leader Oscar Temaru accused France of “nuclear racism” for conducting the tests in the knowledge they were harmful.