When French president Emmanuel Macron makes a long-delayed trip to Tahiti this week, he will be highlighting twenty-first-century issues: climate change, reef ecology and his proposed India–Australia–France axis to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region. But he won’t be able to avoid the colonial legacies of the twentieth century: in French Polynesia, memories of France’s 193 nuclear tests between 1966 and 1996 have not faded.
Twice this month, large numbers of people have gathered at demonstrations in French Polynesia’s capital Papeete. As they prepare for Macron’s arrival, church and community organisations have joined with the independence party Tāvini Huira’atira nō Te Ao Mäòhi to call for action on the health and environmental consequences of thirty years of atmospheric and underground testing at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls. Under the banner “Mäòhi Lives Matter!” thousands of people have rallied seeking reparations for people affected by the radioactive fallout that spread across French Polynesia’s five archipelagos.
During a 2016 visit to Tahiti, Macron’s predecessor François Hollande pledged action — still incomplete — on nuclear clean-up and compensation. Now it’s Macron’s turn to make the same pilgrimage. More pledges are expected from the French president, but many locals fear he won’t be able to fulfil his commitments before the next presidential election in April 2022.
To frame the president’s three-day tour of the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamotu archipelago and Tahiti, the French government organised a roundtable on nuclear issues in Paris on 1–2 July. But the idea of discussing nuclear legacies in Paris rather than Papeete raised hackles among nuclear survivors.
The leaders of Moruroa e Tatou, an association uniting Mäòhi workers who staffed the nuclear test sites, announced they would boycott the meeting. They were joined by church leaders and Association 193, an organisation that aids nuclear survivors and educates a younger generation. Reverend François Pihaate, president of the Église Protestante Mäòhi — the largest religious denomination in French Polynesia — joined other Mäòhi leaders to dismiss pledges from François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron.
“It’s always the same song, it’s just the singer that changes,” says Pihaate. “The health and dignity of the Mäòhi people, scarred by these tests, is not negotiable at a roundtable.”
Opposition politicians Gaston Flosse and Oscar Manutahi Temaru — both former presidents of French Polynesia — condemned the roundtable as a stunt. Two of French Polynesia’s deputies in the French National Assembly also refused to attend: Moetai Brotherson of the opposition Tāvini Huira’atira party and Nicole Sanquer of the governing Tapura Huira’atira.
Announcing her boycott just days before the roundtable, Sanquer made clear her disagreement with the leader of her party, French Polynesian president Édouard Fritch. “The delegation organised by President Fritch to participate in this meeting is not representative of our country,” she said in a statement. “The community associations and political movements that have fought for several decades to obtain more truth on this question will not participate, for legitimate reasons that they have already indicated or simply because they haven’t even been invited. It is necessary to state that behind all the speeches and the posturing, little has really changed.”
Moetai Brotherson tells me he was initially undecided about attending. “On the one hand, I don’t usually support a policy of ‘the empty chair,’” he says. “I thought it might be important to be a direct witness of what was happening behind closed doors. But now I’ve seen what happened, I’m so glad I didn’t participate in this farce, with the total lack of respect to the Polynesian people and to the victims of the nuclear tests.”
Despite these criticisms, President Fritch and an eighteen-member delegation attended the roundtable. The Reko Tiko (“speaking the truth”) delegation joined a series of discussions chaired by French health minister Olivier Véran, overseas minister Sébastien Lecornu and Geneviève Darrieussecq, who goes by the impressive title of “Minister Delegate to the Minister of the Armed Forces, in charge of Memory and Veterans.”
The differing perspectives and priorities among participants quickly became clear. The French government may have a minister in charge of memory, but it wants to ignore the passions that still drive the survivors of thirty years of nuclear testing.
French officials briefed the media that the meeting would study the issues “without emotion,” in an “objective” manner. The overseas ministry pledged an open book, proposing “the objective of sharing information without taboos, both on the period of the tests and on the impacts of the bomb in French Polynesia, in a meeting held under the banner of transparency.” The health ministry wanted to develop an up-to-date body of knowledge “because there is a need to rely on scientific knowledge to objectify and reduce uncertainties and misunderstandings.”
While Darrieussecq acknowledged that “we must take responsibility for all the consequences, human, societal, health, environmental and economic,” she said there would be no apology from France. “We are not at all in the business of forgiveness. We are addressing national matters and the construction of our national defence. French Polynesia continues to be an essential link in our military forces today.”
On the sidelines of the meeting, Darrieussecq briefed Agence France-Presse that “there had been no lies by the State.” It is this claim that so annoys most French Polynesians — especially coming from a minister responsible for “memory.”
Even as a loyal supporter of the French Republic, president Édouard Fritch has acknowledged that many politicians lied about the hazards of the testing program. As he told the Assembly of French Polynesia in November 2018, “For thirty years we lied to the people that the tests were clean. We lied. I was part of this gang. Why did we lie when our own leader saw a bomb go off? When you see an atomic bomb go off, I think you realise that it can’t help but hurt. For thirty years we said the truth is ‘it was clean.’ This is the reason why I am investing myself enormously today in this affair, recognising I owe a lot to my people.”
Other Mäòhi recall the silencing of those who dared to challenge the nuclear build-up, including the unjust conviction and exile of Tahitian nationalist Pouvana’a a Oopa in the 1950s, and the 1985 sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour, an act of state terrorism that caused the death of Fernando Pereira. Today, in Aotearoa New Zealand and across the region, people have not forgotten: Auckland Museum has just launched an exhibition on “Remembering Moruroa.”
France’s claims of transparency are also belied by the ongoing debate about the declassification of archival documents from the nuclear testing era. For decades, many crucial documents — especially those detailing levels of radioactive contamination — have been inaccessible to independent researchers, medical experts and even the government of French Polynesia.
Darrieussecq pledged after the roundtable that a working group “including a Polynesian representative” would be established in Paris in September to look at how to open up the nuclear archives. “We have nothing to hide,” she added, “apart from information that could be used for weapons proliferation and which endangers the security of France and the world.”
For French Polynesian deputy Moetai Brotherson, this pledge is sleight of hand, given that a longstanding legal case to open up the national archives was already before France’s highest administrative court. “It has nothing to do with the roundtable,” says Brotherson. “This was already in the pipeline, pending at the Conseil d’État.”
At the same time as the roundtable, the Conseil d’État overturned provisions of 2011 legislation that had extended the classification of documents from twenty-five to fifty years, especially those related to national security. One objectionable provision of the law was that any document with a classified stamp had to be restamped “declassified” before it could be released, but that action could only be undertaken by the agency that classified the document in the first place. The fifty-year timeline was measured from the last, not the first, document contained in a file.
Many French historians and researchers remain sceptical that the army and defence ministry will open up their archives in a timely way to fill in the gaps in what’s known about the nuclear program. Will French bureaucrats be eager to reveal the sorry history of public disinformation issued by successive governments over many decades?
This debate over paperwork angers many former Moruroa workers, whose compensation claims are repeatedly rejected because they can’t provide documentary evidence of their work on the test sites. The classification of radiation dose levels makes it hard to prove a connection between their service on Moruroa and current cancers, leukaemia or other health effects.
Debate about the radioactive legacies of French nuclear testing exploded again last March, after the publication of Toxique, a book by investigative journalist Tomas Statius and Sébastien Philippe, a researcher at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. Statius and Philippe analyse more than 2000 documents from the French defence ministry, now made available on the Moruroa Files website. While much of the book draws on work by previous researchers, it re-evaluates the extent of the radioactive contamination between 1966 and 1974. It shows, for example, that the 17 July 1974 test codenamed Centaure spread fallout as far as Tahiti, exposing the 80,000 inhabitants of Papeete to hazardous levels of ionising radiation.
Toxique has caused a stir in France, although the authors were not invited to the recent roundtable to discuss their work. Many people in French Polynesia, however, have been documenting this reality for many years. Before his death in 2017, researcher Bruno Barrillot published a series of books detailing the exposure levels of workers at Moruroa and hazards to communities on neighbouring islands.
Barrillot also served as key technical adviser to a 2005 inquiry into nuclear testing conducted by the Assembly of French Polynesia. This parliamentary commission, chaired by Assembly member Unutea Hirshon, published two volumes of findings the following year that drew on the testimony of nuclear survivors as well as official archives. Hirshon says the inquiry was only possible after the local elections that brought independence leader Oscar Temaru to the presidency in 2004, an era known as the Taui (change).
“A few weeks after we won the elections, I was given the opportunity to preside over the special committee into the consequences of atmospheric nuclear testing,” she recalls. “Because this inquiry was within the parliament, it was very hard for the French or the local authorities to prevent us asking people to testify: whether they were involved at that time, or people from the weather bureau, scientists and specialists.”
The time was right for the inquiry, she adds, because people felt safe to testify. “Many were local people who knew a lot about the testing, but they had been scared. There was like a cloud: ‘You don’t talk!’ So it was during the Taui, this time of change, that we could show there had been impacts on the population and damage to the environment.”
Back in Paris, one of the few positives to come out of the roundtable was a government commitment to increase resources for the Comité d’Indemnisation des Victimes des Essais Nucléaires, or CIVEN, a commission established in 2010 to evaluate compensation claims for civilian and military personnel who staffed the test sites. Over its first five years of operation, CIVEN approved only 2 per cent of claims. Changes to the law since 2017 have improved the compensation process, but political and community leaders in French Polynesia continue to push for further reforms.
In June, Moetai Brotherson put forward draft legislation to the French National Assembly seeking support from Macron’s La République En Marche party to increase funding to French Polynesia’s Caisse de Prévoyance Sociale, or CPS, the fund that provides medical pensions and social security for French Polynesians. Pledges at the July roundtable mean little, he says, alongside the brusque rejection of this legislation.
“I had a law proposal that tried to encompass the main requests from the victims, the associations and our CPS social security system,” says Brotherson. “I worked for two years on this proposal that was presented on 17 June. But of course it was dismissed by the majority here.”
Patrick Galenon, the former CPS chair, joined the Reko Tiko delegation at this month’s roundtable. Speaking to journalists in Paris, he highlighted the striking burden of cancer facing many Polynesians: “According to our CPS data, Polynesian women aged between forty and fifty years old have the highest rate of thyroid cancer in the world.” Back in Tahiti, Galenon says he was disappointed by how the discussions unfolded: “We have provided the French state with a lot of data concerning the situation of CPS, how the twenty-three radiation-induced diseases have cost the community more than eighty billion Pacific francs since 1985.”
Today, the French Polynesian government is seeking reimbursement of this massive A$1 billion cost. Community organisations are also calling for France to fund research into the possible intergenerational impact of radiation on the children and grandchildren of Mäòhi workers who staffed the test sites.
Medical researchers want more resources to track the burden of cancer among French Polynesians. Earlier this year, the French medical research agency Inserm released a major report on the health impacts of the nuclear testing program and called for a more comprehensive cancer register in Tahiti and better documentation of cardiovascular and congenital abnormalities among French Polynesians.
Will President Macron use his visit to recommit to the pledges by successive governments over many years? Moetai Brotherson worries that “the message delivered by Emmanuel Macron when he comes to Tahiti will have very little to do with the Polynesians — in fact, it will have much more to do with the interests of France in the region.” •
Reporting for this article was supported by a Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism through the Walkley Public Fund.