French Polynesians seek a reckoning on nuclear testing as Macron visits islands

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French President Emmanuel Macron is under pressure to apologise for the devastating legacy of decades of nuclear testing in French Polynesia as he wraps up his first official trip to the region. Many islanders believe the tests caused an increase in the population’s cancer rate and are demanding more transparency as well as compensation.

Macron is visiting French Polynesia, an archipelago of more than 100 islands, for the first time since being elected in 2017. The president, who postponed a planned 2020 visit to the overseas territory due to the Covid-19 pandemic, arrived in Tahiti on Saturday evening for a four-day stay that began with a visit to a hospital in the capital island of Papeete.

Crucially, the French president is expected to address the consequences of the 193 nuclear tests France conducted on the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa from 1966 to 1996. Many developed cancer in the years after the tests were conducted and are hoping for a meaningful gesture from Macron as they struggle to secure compensation.

Several French Polynesian political organisations and associations have warned for years about the long-term effects of radiation from the tests. "This country has suffered so much from these nuclear tests and it continues to suffer. When we see that eminent scientists are now predicting that radiation-induced illnesses have a trans-generational effect, we wonder what we will pass on to our children,” Antony Géros, the vice-president of the pro-independence party Tavini Huiraatira, told French overseas media network Outre-Mer La 1ère ahead of Macron’s visit.

Several thousand people demonstrated in Papeete on July 17 to pay tribute to the victims of one of the most polluting tests, dubbed Centaure, which was conducted on that date in 1974 near Moruroa. A previous demonstration took place on the July 2 anniversary of France’s first nuclear test in French Polynesia.

The protests come in the wake of new revelations about the consequences of the tests in recent months. An investigation entitled “Toxic” published in March by French media NGO Disclose claims that the population was exposed to higher doses of radioactivity than officially announced and that France neither warned nor protected its people.

“Toxic” asserts that after the Centaure test, “about 110,000 people were dangerously exposed to radioactivity, i.e., almost the entire population of the archipelagos at the time”.

Atmospheric tests, then underground

The nuclear tests were first carried out in the atmosphere between 1966 and 1974. “There was international pressure to stop these aerial tests and move them underground, but France did not give in and hid the extent of the fallout,” researcher Sébastien Philippe told FRANCE 24. Philippe contributed to the Disclose investigation and co-wrote the book, “Toxic : An Investigation into French nuclear testing in Polynesia”.

From 1975 onwards, France abandoned aerial tests and carried out underground tests instead. Although “this period is still very poorly documented”, Philippe said, he believes that the tests affected the islands’ environment more than the population. “The atolls were disfigured. These underground tests have caused collapses and rock fractures, and hundreds of kilograms of fission products and plutonium remain trapped. The fauna and flora have been severely affected,” added Philippe, who is an associate researcher at both Princeton and Sciences Po university in Paris and a specialist in nuclear issues.

The results of the investigation had a major impact on French Polynesia, prompting France to organise a roundtable with representatives of the ministries of defence, health and overseas territories as well as a Polynesian delegation in early July. Geneviève Darrieussecq, minister delegate for veterans, told the gathering that “there was no state cover-up” and ruled out an official apology from France, despite requests from anti-nuclear groups and local political organisations.

Acknowledging responsibility for the consequences of nuclear testing “would be to acknowledge that the authorities exposed populations [to fallout] without their knowledge, after maintaining for decades that these tests were clean”, Philippe said. “Some institutions do not necessarily want to make official what happened, or probably don’t think they did anything wrong, given that, at the time, they were following orders.”

Victims’ compensation

The lack of an official apology is also closely linked to the issue of compensation. “Acknowledging what happened also means compensating the population on a massive scale,” said Philippe, who estimates the cost of compensating victims of cancer potentially caused by atmospheric testing at €700 million.

Many continue to seek some sort of redress. But they are up against France’s Committee for the Compensation of Victims of Nuclear Tests (CIVEN), which has not yet acknowledged that the nuclear fallout caused cancer. During the July roundtable it became clear that claimants needed help putting together their applications. CIVEN receives 140 to 150 compensation claims per year.

CIVEN's new president, Gilles Hermitte, anticipates an increase in claims in the event of an official decision on compensation. It is essential that these people have the right information, he told AFP, but they also need help in "taking the steps to obtain the necessary documents for their files, particularly the medical documents”.

France wants to repair its troubled relationship with the territory despite a history that continues to poison relations. The defence ministry has stated that it is committed to “allowing all Polynesians to access their history, archives and health data with full transparency, to know what happened during this period (…) while preserving certain secrets that could allow foreign powers to begin to acquire nuclear weapons”.

Seeking answers in the archives

For Philippe, gaining access to the archives would be an important step towards being able to calculate the impact of the tests’ nuclear fallout independently.

“For example, this would allow us to better understand how the authorities made decisions, why and when people were exposed to fallout, and why it was acceptable at the time for people to be exposed,” he said.

Macron has confirmed that the archives will be opened, according to Édouard Fritch, the president of French Polynesia.

But it also matters how France opens its archives – and to whom. “The issue is knowing which archives will be declassified,” Philippe said. “We also need to see whether the government opens them to all researchers without additional vetting, to avoid a one-sided history being written."

The defence ministry has said it needs to explain “the methods and data used to calculate the doses [of radioactivity] people received during and after the nuclear tests” in French Polynesia.

While French Polynesians may be hoping for significant announcements during Macron’s visit, the Élysée Palace has so far remained vague. “The president of the Republic will be keen, during this trip, to promote a close, transparent dialogue by encouraging the swift and concrete implementation of several measures, both on the issue of remembrance with the opening of the archives and on the issue of individual compensation,” the Élysée said.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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