Blown Away

Chirac, Muroroa and Nuclear Tests

President Chirac’s decision to resume nuclear testing in French Polynesia disregarded the interests of its people, its neighbours and the international community. 

Mururoa Atoll, a tiny French possession, is located in the southeast corner of the Taumotu archipelago in French Polynesia. It could have been an island paradise except that in 1966, France began using the site for atmospheric nuclear testing. 

In 1992 President Mitterrand announced a complete end to all testing under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The cold war was over, international tensions had eased and the world had other WMDs to worry about.

In 1995, to international disbelief, a new president, Jacques Chirac announced France’s intention to resume underground nuclear testing.

The People

While the British, Dutch and Germans gave their colonies in the Pacific independence decades ago, France has held on French Polynesia. During a visit to its capital, Papeete in August 2002, the Overseas Territories Minister Brigitte Girardin said, "Without French Polynesia, France would not be a great power.”

The main point and purpose of France’s continuing Pacific presence is to provide somewhere to develop France’s nuclear weaponry. French aid (€1 billion in 2003) and especially funding for the giant Centre d'Experimentation du Pacifique (CEP) dominates the economy which has little else to offer except tourism and pearl fishing.

 When Chirac announced that France was going to resume nuclear testing in their islands, it was the usually tranquil Polynesians who exploded in rage. Polynesians burned French flags at a rally in Sydney, and protesters held a candlelight vigil in Fiji. When the testing began, in September 1995, protests rocked Tahiti with rioters wearing pro-independence T-shirts demanding independence. Chirac had Foreign Legion units choppered in to restore order.

Demands for independence have not gone away. In May 2004, a pro-independence party, the Union for Democracy, won a narrow victory at the polls and its leader.

The Bomb

There was only one reason President Chirac ordered a resumption of nuclear testing at Muroroa: he wanted to snub someone he loathed: his predecessor, François Mitterrand.

Mitterrand ceased testing in 1992 in accordance with a number of international non-proliferation obligations. When he came into office, Chirac unilaterally overturned Mitterrand’s directive and ordered eight new tests. "You only have to look back at 1935,” reasoned Chirac rather weakly, “There were people then who were against France arming itself, and look what happened.” 

France’s Pacific neighbours – unconsulted – were furious. France was condemned at the UN, Australia and other Pacific states withdrew their ambassadors while Japan convened the Tokyo Forum, a meeting of eighteen prominent diplomatic and strategic experts from sixteen countries to discuss “the impact of nuclear testing”. Frances's actions "remind us of the threats and horrors that haunted the collective imagination during the Cold War years", was one typical comment, this time from Brazil's Foreign Minister Luiz Felipe Lampreia.

Meanwhile the people of the region voted with their wallets, boycotting French wine (one order for 44,000 cases of Beaujolais was terminated) while Club Med’s resort in Tahito received 15,000 cancelled orders. The French aircraft manufacturer Dassault lost business worth $370 million when banned from bidding in Australia. 

In the wave of governmental and public hostility, Chirac lost his nerve. France stopped nuclear testing on 22 February, 1996, three months short of the expected testing intervals, with only six of the eight tests completed.

In May 1996, France finally signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The Environment

The overall effects of the French nuclear tests at Mururoa will not be known for years. The French government is secretive about releasing information about environmental hazards associated with nuclear testing. 

It is known that the blasts inflicted long-term environmental damage to the geographical structuring of the atoll and the surrounding coral reefs. Comparing official French maps from 1980 and 2000 show that years of nuclear testing have cracked the atoll and altered land plates.

In May 1999, the director of France's Atomic Energy Commission, René Pellat, had already admitted that the nuclear tests had caused cracks in the coral atolls. Resulting radioactive leaks have drastically increased the risk to aquatic life in the surrounding sea and, more ominously, to the food chain which obviously ends with the human inhabitants of Polynesia. The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that fish near Mururoa have died after their eyes popped out and their internal organs were forced out of their mouths and anuses.

The impact on human health is also uncalculated. Since August 2002 former French Pacific test site workers had been demanding a complete medical investigation into their abnormally high rates of cancer.

In a 2003 flying visit to Papeete, Chirac proudly announced to the Polynesians that France would pay them “compensation” for the years of nuclear testing and would take responsibility for any test-related health problems “if proof could be provided that such a link existed”. Two years later, the US$250 million compensation, as well as other amounts pledged for infrastructure improvement, have still not been paid. 


Blown Away. Mururoa is the home of the Centre d'Experimentation du Pacifique (Pacific Experimentation Centre), France’s nuclear testing agency. Between 1966 – when the French were forced to leave their former test site in Algeria – and 1995, France conducted 41 atmospheric and 138 underground tests at the Atoll. All that remains is a thin crescent-shaped strip of lightly forested beach, fifteen miles long.

The Last Laugh. Chirac’s resumption of nuclear testing at Mururoa was designed to tick off his old rival, former President Mitterrand. He, in turn, gleefully relished the international outrage and humiliation suffered by Chirac. Even though dying of cancer, Mitterrand gave a well-publicised interview to reporters, saying he had received so much cancer treatment he was “as radioactive as Mururoa Atoll”.


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