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thanked Polynesians for their sacrifices in giving France nuclear “dissuasion,” one could see the persistence of outdated Cold War obsessions with deterrence, as well as Charles de Gaulle’s lasting influence on French policy.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.

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