Claiming that nuclear testing was completely safe, the French government for decades conducted tests on the tiny Pacific atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa, a comfortable 15,000km from Paris, but only 4000km northeast of New Zealand.
In 1966 France turned its back on the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, which outlawed atmospheric testing, and relocated Pacific islanders away from their ancestral villages to make way for a barrage of tests over the next eight years. The French authorities claimed that “Not a single particle of radioactive fallout will ever reach an inhabited island” – and yet radiation was routinely detected as far away as Samoa, Fiji and even New Zealand. Increasingly antagonistic public opinion forced the French to conduct their tests underground in deep shafts, where another 200 detonations took place, threatening the geological stability of these fragile coral atolls.
In 1985, Greenpeace coordinated a New Zealand-based protest flotilla, headed by its flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, but before the fleet could set sail from Auckland, the French secret service sabotaged the Rainbow Warrior, detonating two bombs below the waterline. As rescuers recovered the body of Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira, two French secret service agents posing as tourists were arrested. Flatly denying all knowledge at first, the French government was finally forced to admit to what then Prime Minister David Lange described as “a sordid act of international state-backed terrorism”. The two captured agents were sentenced to ten years in jail, but France used all its international muscle to have them serve their sentences on a French Pacific island; they both served less than two years before being honoured and returning to France.
In 1995, to worldwide opprobrium, France announced a further series of tests. Greenpeace duly dispatched Rainbow Warrior II, which was impounded by the French navy on the tenth anniversary of the sinking of the original Rainbow Warrior. In early 1996 the French finally agreed to stop nuclear testing in the Pacific.