Light of the World Offers No Apologies to Polynesia

As French president Francois Hollande visited Tahiti this week and implicitly thanked Polynesians for their sacrifices in giving France nuclear “dissuasion,” one could see the persistence of outdated Cold War obsessions with deterrence, as well as Charles de Gaulle’s lasting influence on French policy. De Gaulle was famous for grandiose hyperbole like this example from 1963 which he uttered at the dawn of France’s nuclear age:

"France’s authority is moral… Our country is different than others because of its disinterested and universal vocation… France has an eternal role. That is why it benefits from an immense credit. Because France was a pioneer of American independence, of the abolition of slavery, of the rights of people to dispose of their own fate. Because it is the champion of nations’ independence against all hegemonies. Everyone realizes that France is the light of the world, it’s genius is to enlighten the universe." [1]

Hollande made a compromise statement that recognized that the health and environmental consequences were more than previously admitted, but there was no apology, no remorse and no questioning about the decisions of the past. There were only vague promises about recognizing the suffering, bringing more justice to the compensation process, and “turning the page,” whatever that was supposed to mean.

Non, je ne regrette rien.
An excerpt from news wire copy is below, followed by comments by Bruno Barrillot, a researcher and author who has covered the issue for the last thirty years.

Stéphane de Sakutin, “Hollande acknowledges 'consequences' of nuclear tests on Polynesia trip,” AFP and France24, February 23, 2016,

Compensation for the victims of three decades of French nuclear tests was a focus of President François Hollande's visit to French Polynesia on Monday… the focus of the visit was very much on the victims of 193 nuclear tests carried out by France between 1966 and 1996 on the atolls Mururoa and Fangataufa.

The French president acknowledged Monday in Papeete that the nuclear tests conducted in French Polynesia had affected the environment and the health of the islands. "I recognize that the nuclear tests conducted between 1966 and 1996 in French Polynesia had an environmental impact, and caused health consequences," he said. Hollande said he wanted to “turn the page” on nuclear tests, while hailing Polynesia’s crucial role in developing France’s nuclear capabilities. Without its overseas territories, “France would not now have nuclear weapons and the power of dissuasion,” he said, using the French expression for nuclear deterrence.

Hollande also announced a review of the application process for compensating the victims of the tests. Only around 20 people have received compensation for the spread of cancers allegedly linked to the tests from among some 1,000 plaintiffs.

France’s “nuclear debt” owed to Polynesia, dubbed the “Chirac Billion” (in Francs, now worth around €150 million), is an annual payment to the islands that has been reduced year after year, and which Polynesians want to be made permanent.


Mr. President, more must be done!
A translated excerpt of: Bruno Barrillot, « Monsieur le Président, il faut aller plus loin ! » Observatoire des armements, 2016/02/23, http://www.obsarm.org/spip.php?article268

The leaders of France have still not understood that this discourse about clean tests is based on repeated lies by those how were responsible for the nuclear tests. These lies have been refuted today by hundreds of documents that had been classified as state secrets...

The vague announcement about modifying the Morin Law [on compensation for nuclear test victims] risks putting the victims through more endless procedures before the Committee for Compensation, and in other tribunals. We must ask if there will be a true concerted effort to work with the victims’ groups to elaborate what this new decree should take account of and who will be on the Committee for Compensation—which hasn’t really changed its methods for reviewing cases since it became independent from the Ministry of Defense...

The Observatoire des armaments proposes that the various announcements by the president of the republic should allow for the true involvement of all parties concerned, including of course the groups which, in Polynesia and France, have been vigorously mobilized for many years. Time is of the essence! The victims are disappearing and getting discouraged because of having waited for so long! Polynesians, thanks to the very recent exemplary action by Association 193, are growing more and more aware of the consequences of the nuclear history on their lives, their health and their environment.



I think Mr. Barrillot knows but didn’t point out at this time that there is a fundamental flaw in the recent statement by President Hollande. It comes with a recognition of the “impacts” of the nuclear tests, but not with an admission that the whole pursuit of nuclear weapons was a crime and a tragic error for France, and for every other nation that has possessed them. When he said that without its overseas territories, France would not now have nuclear weapons and the power of dissuasion, he said it as if thanking Polynesians and Algerians (not to mention the affected French military and civilian personnel) for their sacrifices for a great cause. If this were not the case, and he thought the pursuit of nuclear weapons had been a grave error, his statement would have sounded like blaming the overseas territories for enabling France to go down this evil road.

As is the case in America, one has to turn to late night comedy shows to find intelligent analysis and correspondents who will ask uncomfortable questions. Le Petit Journal covered the state visit to Polynesia, and interviewed members of the group Association 193 to ask them what they thought of the president’s statement. One said it was not what they had expected.They wanted an apology. Another said the lack of an apology was “disgusting” and “they take us for fools.” 

No apology? "Disgusting. They take us for fools." From Le Petit Journal, 2016/02/23
The correspondent was granted an interview with Hollande, and he asked directly if it was time to apologize and admit that it was a mistake to test nuclear weapons. Hollande repeated that it was time to “recognize the effects” and seek a more just compensation, but then he answered the question straight: "No. The nuclear tests are a historical fact. It happened. It had to happen. That’s how we got the nuclear deterrent." (translation and paraphrase). So, this candid official line is that some unfortunate things happened, we’ll deal with the consequences, but the lives lost were worth it. It was all for the best in the best of all possible worlds... Voltaire would be outraged.
Regrets? An error? "No. The nuclear tests are a historical fact.
It happened. It had to happen. That’s how we got the nuclear deterrent."
From Le Petit Journal, 2016/02/23
Every president since de Gaulle has stuck with the fantasy that nuclear deterrence (or dissuasion) has somehow saved France from being destroyed by nuclear weapons, or allowed it to achieve a status from which it worked magic on international relations. Every other nuclear nation persists in the same illogical conclusion, that they survived because of deterrence. They do take us for fools because they expect we will not notice that one could never prove the reason that nuclear war didn’t happen. We can look around at France’s neighboring countries and see that they have not been attacked by nuclear or conventional weapons. We can also look back on de Gaulle’s grand plan to break the deadlock of the Cold War and see that it really had little influence on the way a new world order emerged in the 1980s. Or we could ask Rwandans about the outcome of French and Anglo-American rivalries in central Africa in the 1990s.

If France wanted to try once again to claim high ground on the world stage, and not be laughed off it the way de Gaulle was, there is a way it could do something really brilliant for humanity. France possesses only a few hundred nuclear weapons (compared to the thousands in the US and Russian arsenals), and it is in a unique position to make the first major step toward disarmament. The US and Russia can’t do it now because they have lost too much trust, and they fear the consequences of destabilizing the status quo. But France would risk nothing by dismantling its nuclear weapons. It needs them as much as Spain, Germany and Italy need their own nukes; that is, not at all. It stands only to gain, first by ridding itself of the expense of the weapons, second by ridding itself of the danger they pose, and third by gaining the moral stature that de Gaulle hallucinated about. It would be an unprecedented step because France would be the first of “the group of five” (the five nations of the UN Security Council, who all possess nuclear arsenals) to forsake the possession of nuclear weapons. It would be the courageous example of unilateral disarmament that many have called for over the years. Everyone would realize that France had lived up to de Gaulle’s view of his nation: France truly would be “the light of the world,” possessing “a genius is to enlighten the universe.” Or was that light just the flash of the Canopus H-bomb exploding over the Fangataufa atoll?

Canopus, 1968/08/24

[1] Alain Peyrefitte, C’était de Gaulle, vol. 1. (Fayard, 1994-2000). Meeting of February 13, 1963, p. 283. In Garret Joseph Martin’s General de Gaulle’s Cold War: Challenging American Hegemony 1963-68 (Berghan Books, 2013) p. 193.


The backside of the Tahitian picture post card

The backside of the Tahitian picture post card

French president Francois Hollande has had a very bad year. Just as there were high expectations when Obama came after Bush, things were supposed to get better when the Sarkozy years ended. But France has a deep state just like America, and it has a legacy of colonialism that has come back to haunt it with an array of intractable problems. As the nuclear industry staggered on like a zombie in the form of two bankrupt mega-corporations (EDF and AREVA), the terror attacks took center stage and the spoiled COP21 conference. As a reaction to the attacks, the government moved to restrict freedoms by revising the constitution in a way that would allow for French-born citizens to lose their nationality. The Eurozone crisis grinds on, refugees continue to pour into Europe, and the Socialists’ ideas on labor and pension reforms are no better than Sarkozy’s. Pamela Anderson, of all people, walked into this to add to M. Hollande’s troubles. She visited the national assembly in January to berate France for the animal cruelty behind its fois-gras tradition—an event which was at least more well attended by representatives than the vote on constitutional reform. I wonder why.

One might want to joke that Hollande is going to Tahiti this week in the hope of finding a nice overwater bungalow retreat away from all this, but he knows on the contrary that he is flying into a storm, as the visit coincides in the 20th year since the last nuclear bomb detonation in French Polynesia. The devastating effects on the culture and health of Polynesians have never been addressed sufficiently. The weather forecast calls for stormy weather during the entire time of his visit.

Part 1 The inverse of Tahitian paradise, a translation of:
L'envers du décor paradisiaque de Tahiti, Le Temps, Switzerland, February 16, 2016

Part 2 Bruno Barrillot’s study on the effects of nuclear tests on children, a translation of :

Le voyage de François Hollande à Tahiti vu par le Petit Journal

Part 1 The inverse of Tahitian paradise, a translation of:
L'envers du décor paradisiaque de Tahiti, Le Temps, Switzerland, February 16, 2016

French president Francois Hollande will visit Tahiti on February 22, 2016. He will be the first French head of state to visit in thirteen years. There is much anticipation for the visit because now, fifty years since the first nuclear tests, French Polynesia is paying the social and environmental costs of having hosted bureaucrats and soldiers from France.

A light wind rustles the fruit trees that surround the home of Marie-Noëlle Epetahui, on the peninsula on southeast Tahiti called Tahiti Iti. “Women call me day and night when they are beaten. My door is always open.” In the town of Taravao, 50 kilometers from Papeete, the manager of the local branch of Vahine Orama (Women Standing Up) welcomes hundreds of victims of domestic violence under its roof. Ms. Epetahui  explains, “The violence always existed, but the number of cases is growing. Polynesian society is undergoing profound change. Traditional structures are disappearing.”

Since the end of the nuclear testing era, in 1995, and the departure of personnel from France, jobs became scarce. Alcohol, and paka (the local term for marijuana) feed on misery and take a heavy toll. “On the peninsula, most of the problems are found in the social housing projects of Taravao, built in 2006 and 2007 by the Office of Public Habitats (OPH).” This housing office accepts families who originally came from distant islands in the hope of finding work. When they fail to find work in Papeete [the capital], they are displaced to Taravao, on the isthmus that separates the peninsula from the main island of Tahiti Nui.

People have lost the knowledge or the means to fish or gather fruits from the forest. Maiana Bambridge, former director of the OPH, currently vice president of the French Polynesian Red Cross stated, “The populations from the archipelagos of Tuamotu or the Marquesas started to arrive in Tahiti in the 1960s after the establishment of the Centre d’expérimentation du Pacifique (CEP) which was in charge of the nuclear testing program. In this period, until the 1990s, the money was flowing. People forgot how to fish* and feed themselves from the forest. They became warehousemen or support workers. Then it all ended overnight.”

The myth of a golden age before the nuclear tests

Polynesians often romanticize the golden age before the nuclear tests, but it is not so easy to go back and live on the isolated islands. Ms. Bambridge adds, “There is no high school on the Gambier or Southern archipelagos. The young people come to Tahiti to study. They stay with their parents, but cohabitation is often difficult. Pregnant women are made to give birth at the hospital in Papeete, in order to, in theory, reduce infant mortality. The Protection sociale program reimburses such relocations for health reasons, but they break down family structures.” Following a very French model, the autonomous government of the “country” chose centralization, concentrating all infrastructure and services in Tahiti, while the 138 islands that make up the rest of French Polynesia are scattered over 5.5 million square kilometers of ocean, a territory as large as Western Europe.

Close to Papeete, the runways of the airport at Faa’a were built on backfilled land. On one side is the lagoon, now inaccessible for the population, and on the other is Hotuarea, a place inhabited by squatters whom the state has wanted to remove for decades. “These people began to live there decades ago, often with the tacit agreement of the owners,” explains Moetai Brotherson, an assistant to the mayor of the city, the independence politician Oscar Temaru. “Today, this place poses a lot of problems. A lot of families want their land back.”

Drugs, obesity, diabetes

The community in Faa’a has a concentration of all the social problems in Polynesia: drugs, but also obesity and diabetes, the number one illness of the nation which affects close to one half of all Polynesians. Within a few decades, the diet of the islands was completely transformed.** Now almost all food products are imported. Butter, oil and carbonated beverages now occupy the main position on the tables of the people.

The victims of the nuclear tests must show proof that their cancer is really linked to the tests, which is scientifically impossible. Roland Oldham, was a militant who, at the age of 16, joined the first protests against the tests in 1966. He explained, “The nuclear tests certainly contaminated the Pacific and caused irreversible environmental damage, but they also trapped us in a terrible economic and cultural dependence on France.” Today Roland leads the association of former nuclear workers who are demanding compensation for health damages. “We submitted close to 900 files, but most of them were rejected because of Article 4 of the 2010 Law which is based on the notion of ‘negligible risk.’*** The victims have the burden of proof to show that their cancer is linked to the tests, which is scientifically impossible.” For him, the French nuclear program is a “cancer” that continues to plague Polynesian society, even though it ended twenty years ago.

* What should be added here is that the locals didn’t merely “forget” how to fish. They were specifically instructed not to fish in many places because marine life became contaminated with dangerous levels of radionuclides from the bomb detonations.

** Dietary factors are not the only causes of diabetes. Radioactive contamination, especially the internal contamination that is ignored in all official surveys, has numerous effects on health aside from cancer.

*** Recently the French Council of State reviewed the 2010 Law and ruled that the burden of proof should be shifted onto the State. The absence of exposure data does not permit the state to conclude that the victim was not exposed to a non-negligible risk. It remains to be seen whether more applicants for compensation will receive favorable judgments.
Polynesian protest art, 1975
Part 2 Bruno Barrillot’s study on the effects of nuclear tests on children, translation of : Nucléaire : L’Etude de Bruno Barrillot sur les atteintes aux enfants, Radio 1 Tahiti, February 17, 2016

The former representative in charge of reporting on the consequences of nuclear testing for the DSCEN [Département de Suivi des Centres d'expérimentations Nucléaires], Bruno Barrillot, published an article on these consequences in the January 2016 issue of L’Observatoire des armements. The article places particular emphasis on the effects on children-- “… a question that is all the more pressing because it involves risks of genetic damage that will affect future generations.”

Bruno Barrillot has no fear of saying what he thinks. In his latest article he begins by denouncing the silence of the State 50 years after the first test. “Polynesians are still living without credible answers about the risks they were exposed to.” The people need to know. The proof, according to him, comes from a petition done by the victims group Association 193 with “30,000 signatures demanding reparations from France.” In his article, Bruno Barrillot is most concerned with “the most fragile: women and children.” These groups carry higher risks of genetic damage that can be passed to future generations. The author affirms notably, “The successive ministers of defense and presidents of the republic were perfectly informed, test after test, about the health risks they were exposing the population and the military personnel to. But the French health authorities took no prevention measures.” In contrast, the health service of the army went out of its way to cover up the data relevant to health effects.”

To support his article, Bruno Barrillot turns to various testimonies and documentaries, such as the one by Philomène Voirin, a wise elder of Fenua [a Polynesian term that refers to land, country or ancestral home]. One testimony demonstrates “shocking revelations from the documentary Moruroa le grand secret.” For example, there were malformations such as club feet and anencephalies—children born with badly deformed skulls.

Bruno Barrillot believes political leaders of France carry the responsibility for this murderous enterprise because, according to Article 121-3 of the penal code, persons are protected from being violated in a manifestly deliberate manner, there is a particular obligation of prudence, of foreseeing the need for the security measures required by law or regulation. It is a crime to expose others to a particularly grave risk that was [known or] not possible to ignore.