Photo courtesy of user Martin Schulz and European Union 2015 – European Parliament
Asia-Pacific / Radiation

20 Years Later: France’s Radioactive Legacy in French Polynesia

Te Ao Maohi, the chain of islands officially recognized as French Polynesia, was a land first known to the western world through paintings and literature. The tales told by early European colonists describe the islands as an untouched Eden on Earth: bath-warm waters rolling turquoise into the shore, a docile climate ripe with exotic fruits and generous, attractive natives. Artists such as Paul Gauguin portrayed the lives of Polynesians as primitive and wholesome. Films like Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) depict Tahiti as a safe haven and treasure trove of simple luxuries for weary European travelers. The contemporary tourism industry markets French Polynesia as the ideal vacation spot for those seeking to find themselves in paradise. But this idealistic image of heaven on Earth obscures a disturbing reality of nuclear fallout, illness, and French deception.

In February 2016, French President Francois Hollande flew down to the South Pacific for three days as the first stop on a global tour of the French territories. It was the first time a president had made an appearance in French Polynesia since 1979, and he spent the majority of his stay on mainland Tahiti. While in Papeete, he delivered a sycophantic speech regarding the economic and social merits of Tahiti to a small, impassive crowd fanning themselves with pamphlets and braided palm fronds. As his speech neared its end, Hollande buckled down, braced his hands against the glossed podium, and gave the audience what it really wanted: a discussion of the damage done by nuclear testing in French Polynesia.

With a furrow in his brow, he said, “I recognize that the nuclear tests that took place between 1966 and 1996 in French Polynesia had an impact on the environment, and caused a plethora of health issues among its populace.” There was haphazard applause from a few on the outskirts of the assembly. Arms were crossed or folded in laps. Hollande explained that these tests, though they bore grave consequences, were quintessential in developing France’s military powers, and that the Polynesians had made a great contribution to global peace through helping to dissuade other countries from attacking France. He continued: “I hope that we are able, through this meeting, to turn the page on the issue of nuclear testing.” Hollande’s desire to tie up loose ends seems supported by a willful naiveté, as the history of nuclear testing in the South Pacific is not one that will be forgotten or forgiven by the Polynesians any time soon.

Between 1966 and 1996, France conducted 193 nuclear tests in the South Pacific. In 2013, the extent of the damage done to the islands was revealed after over two thousand pages of documentation regarding the tests were declassified.

French nuclear testing originally began in the Sahara desert during the Algerian War of Independence. After France lost the war in 1962, the French Ministry of Defense, led by President Charles de Gaulle, decided to move the project to the Tuamotu Archipelago of French Polynesia. The French stirred up more controversy after the president declined to sign the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which called to ban nuclear tests underwater, in space, and in the atmosphere. Both atmospheric and subterranean tests were set to be held on the islands of Mururoa and Fangataufa.

In August 1968, France became the fifth country in the world to test a thermonuclear device when it enacted Operation Canopus, the nuclear test that yielded 2.6 megatons of explosive power, over two hundred times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The bomb weighed three tons and was suspended from a balloon 520 meters off the ground. In a blatant disregard for human safety, the Polynesian workers and French soldiers charged with running the operation were directed to monitor the explosion from ships just fifteen miles away wearing only shorts and t-shirts. This lackadaisical attitude towards health and safety continued throughout the thirty-year testing period.

In July 1974, an atmospheric test was to be conducted above Mururoa. Despite bad weather conditions, French military scientists went on with the test. The resulting plutonium was absorbed into a nebula of stormclouds, and as the clouds were swept along in the wind, the island of Tahiti was showered with radioactive rain, exposing the land and its inhabitants to over five hundred times the yearly allowable amount of plutonium fallout. Scientific officials estimate that throughout the entire testing period there have been thirty-nine total fallout events on mainland Tahiti, thirty-seven events on the island of Tureia, thirty-one within the Gambier Archipelago, twenty-six on the Marquesan Islands, and seventeen on Bora Bora.

From 1975 on, all nuclear tests were conducted underground, but these tests were accompanied by a whole host of their own hazards. In July 1979, a bomb became stuck in the underground shaft far above the depth at which it was meant to be tested. It could not be dislodged, so officials decided to detonate it for lack of other ideas. The explosion resulted in a tremendous underwater landslide and a tsunami that spread throughout the archipelago, injuring scientists and natives on the nearby islands.

By the 1980s, France’s nuclear tests were attracting international attention from environmental organizations such Greenpeace, which launched campaigns to put a stop to the program. As Greenpeace became more aggressive in its protests, the French military began to retaliate. In 1985, Minister of Defence Charles Hernu ordered French agents to stop activists from interfering with testing by any means necessary. They attacked and sunk Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior, killing a photographer and injuring several others.

In response to local upheaval and global criticism, a moratorium was placed on nuclear testing in the South Pacific in 1992. Many natives were optimistic that they would be free of the nuclear burden, but the break hardly lasted three years, as French President Jacques Chirac decided to resume testing shortly after he was elected in 1995. The last nuclear test was conducted in January 1996, after which France signed the protocols of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, promising to halt all weapons testing.

As one might expect, the prolonged radiation exposure had debilitating long-term consequences on the health of the natives. Between 2002 and 2005, a study conducted by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization established a significant relationship between thyroid cancer and exposure to fallout. Polynesian women alive during the testing era were shown to be five times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than Parisian women of the same age group. In 2008, a survey of over one thousand veterans and natives who participated in the testing found that 35 percent were diagnosed with one or more types of cancer, and one in five were infertile. Globally, approximately 0.018 percent of people are diagnosed with cancer each year, and worldwide infertility rates among people fit to produce children are estimated at around 9 percent. Despite the evidence, the French government denied all allegations that the nuclear tests were harmful until 2009, when a program was introduced to give victims of radiation exposure rightful compensation. The program was promising, and after forty years of repudiation, many of those affected were optimistic that they would finally receive recognition for their struggles. But only nineteen of over one thousand applicants were granted any compensation. Of those nineteen, only five were Polynesians, leaving the majority of the affected natives sick and with little help.

In 2013, when the documents chronicling the thirty-year testing period were released, it was discovered that the French military concealed critical information about Polynesian health from the larger areas of government. This was possible because the majority of doctors in French Polynesia were military doctors at that time.

The resulting controversy proved to be disappointingly ephemeral. The expression ‘out of sight, out of mind’ rings true—a few brown people on an island in the middle of the Pacific are easy to ignore, as evidenced by the fact that the French government declined to even acknowledge the Assembly of French Polynesia’s formal demand for nearly a billion dollars of compensation in 2014. On top of this, the annual aid package given to French Polynesia has been steadily decreasing every year, with hardly any political pushback in metropolitan France.

It has only been twenty years since the tests were stopped, but the Polynesians have felt the effects of France’s nuclear assault for half a century.

“I hope that we are able, through this meeting, to turn the page on the issue of nuclear testing.”

When Hollande brought up the subject of nuclear testing, he set out to accomplish a task that merited far more than a few days worth of pleasantries, especially in light of the fact that anti-French sentiment has had time to stew in the hearts of Polynesians for over one hundred years. Considering his predicament, the French president seemed to effectively placate his audience with promises of upgraded oncology departments within public hospitals and a proposed revival of the compensatory program that would drastically widen access to financial support for those who have suffered health complications as a result of radiation. Hollande also assured the crowd that he would not allow the annual French aid to dwindle to nothing.

Many hope that the president’s visit, though brief, marks the beginning of a new relationship between France and a historically disenfranchised territory. At this point, though, after so many promises and so many disappointments, few are optimistic.

The native voice is not a loud one. In all French Polynesia, there are only about 280,000 people, most of which are poor and uneducated. On the outermost islands, as few as 20 percent of children will complete elementary school, and higher education did not exist at all until the University of French Polynesia was founded in 1987. Polynesian natives are not in a position to spearhead their own salvation right now. The majority of natives are aware of this, but that does not stop them from trying. Teriihinoiatua Joinville Pomare, one of the last living descendants of the original Tahitian monarchy, has been pushing local and French political figures to consider the nuclear testing that took place as a crime against humanity. He does this hoping that it will spur the global support necessary to earn the islands the compensation they need to make French Polynesia a safe, healthy, habitable place again.

Ultimately, the generous, attractive natives depicted in any number of romanticized delusions must continue to place their hope in a country that has fetishized and abused them since the boats docked in the eighteenth century. If France is to atone, Hollande needs to make good on his promises, and those who follow him must maintain them.