Life

The nu­clear-test­ing pro­gramme in the Pa­cific is long over but the ef­fects are still re­ver­ber­at­ing.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - BILL RAL­STON

Bill Ral­ston

De­nis had a prob­lem. We were sit­ting talk­ing in a cafe in Col­lioure, a gor­geous coastal vil­lage on the Mediter­ranean’s Côte Ver­meille, about as far south as you can go in France. The next stop is the Pyre­nees and Spain.

De­nis spoke al­most no English and I can man­age just un pe­tit peu français. Nev­er­the­less, he man­aged to ask where my wife and I were from. “Nou­velle-Zé­lande,” I proudly replied. There came a stac­cato burst of French, and it tran­spired that he had spent a lot of time in the Pa­cific, 20 or 30 years ago, in the mil­i­tary.

“Where?” I asked. “Hao Atoll,” he replied.

“Oh,” I said, ask­ing in franglais whether he’d come across Dom­inque Prieur and Alain Ma­fart, who were con­victed for their part in bomb­ing Green­peace’s Rain­bow War­rior in Auck­land in 1985, killing a pho­tog­ra­pher on board.

He didn’t bat an eye­lid, and be­tween his poor English and my rot­ten French, I worked out that he’d just failed to meet them.

“They were whisked away to Mar­tinique ex­tremely quickly,” he said. That was an in­ter­est­ing rev­e­la­tion, as I was not aware they had swapped trop­i­cal lo­cales in the course of their brief “im­pris­on­ment”.

I have been to Mar­tinique, in the West Indies, and have no doubt the pair found the sur­round­ings more to their lik­ing than the aus­tere Hao mil­i­tary sup­port base for France’s nu­clear test­ing in the Pa­cific from the 1960s to the 1990s.

My wife in­ter­jected that I was, at the time, an or­gan­iser for Green­peace, which pro­duced a parox­ysm of cough­ing and laugh­ter from De­nis. Ac­tu­ally, I was not, but in the 1970s I had helped ear­lier protest boats, in­clud­ing the Green­peace III, the Fri and the Spirit of Peace, sail into the test zone to try to stop at­mo­spheric blasts.

Once his cough­ing was un­der con­trol, De­nis men­tioned his prob­lem. He said his chest and knees were af­fected by ra­di­a­tion from those tests.

Thou­sands of French for­mer ser­vice­men and their fam­i­lies have been clam­our­ing for com­pen­sa­tion from the 193 nu­clear tests that were per­formed in the Pa­cific. Only 11 are re­ported to have re­ceived a pay­out.

Doc­u­ments that sur­faced in 2013 showed that in 1974, one test ex­posed Tahiti and a vast area of the Pa­cific to 500 times the max­i­mum al­low­able level of plu­to­nium fall­out.

Acolum­nist on the now-de­funct Auck­land Star news­pa­per pri­vately dis­missed the protests as “fart­ing into a hur­ri­cane”, a good metaphor, but not en­tirely ac­cu­rate. These days, a quar­ter of a cen­tury since the test­ing ceased, the mem­ory of the French nu­clear tests has faded, but at the time they and the protests were big news.

TVNZ sent a cor­re­spon­dent to France to in­ter­view a French politi­cian in­volved in the ar­gu­ment over the tests. “Mon­sieur Tri­cot,” he bel­lowed at the man who was bar­relling past into a build­ing, “Par­lez-vous Anglais?” “Non,” was the curt re­ply. It was a long way to go at con­sid­er­able ex­pense to get a one-word in­ter­view.

A few days af­ter my frac­tured chat with De­nis, I had a more flu­ent con­ver­sa­tion with a man in Paris, sit­ting in a cafe next to a large ope­nair mar­ket. I com­pli­mented him on his English.

He said he had picked it up trav­el­ling in Aus­tralia in the early 1990s. “In those days, they never re­ally trusted me be­cause I was French and the nu­clear tests were go­ing on,” he said.

In New Zea­land, time and some su­perb Rugby World Cup clashes be­tween the

All Blacks and France over the past cou­ple of decades have healed the wounds.

But how many thou­sands of French Poly­ne­sians and exser­vice­men, I won­der, might be suf­fer­ing ra­di­a­tion ef­fects from that time?

An Auck­land Star colum­nist dis­missed the protests as “fart­ing into a hur­ri­cane”.

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