France finally faces up to Polynesian nuclear legacy

A nuclear mushroom cloud.
A nuclear mushroom cloud. Photo credit: Getty

For the first time, France has accepted responsibility for the radioactive damage caused by nuclear testing to the people of French Polynesia.

The French parliament has now publicly acknowledged that the country effectively forced its Pacific colonies to host 193 nuclear tests from 1966 to 1996.

It has also passed measures that, according to MPs, make it easier for locals to claim compensation for cancer and other illnesses associated with radioactivity.

The French state will also commit to "ensure the maintenance and surveillance of the sites concerned" and "support the economic and structural reconversion of French Polynesia following the cessation of nuclear tests".  

Patrice Bouveret of the Observatoire des armements (Armaments Observatory), an independent organisation that has been assessing the impacts of French nuclear testing in Polynesia since 1984, told the Telegraph the bill ends what he describes as a 23-year "scandal".

"It recognises the fact that local people's health could have been affected and thus the French state's responsibility in compensating them for such damage. Until now, the entire French discourse was that the tests were 'clean' - that was the actual word used - and that they had taken all due precautions for staff and locals."

However, both Bouveret and Polynesian MP Moetai Brotherson called out the Bill for not acknowledging damage caused to future generations of people and not providing concrete steps to recompense.

In 2018, French Polynesian President Edouard Fritch admitted that its leaders had lied to the population for three decades over the dangers of nuclear testing.

"I'm not surprised that I've been called a liar for 30 years. We lied to this population that the tests were clean. We lied," Fritch told officials in filmed footage.

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