Macron’s Polynesia trip clouded in controversy over France’s nuclear weapons tests

July 27, 2021 - 10:35

French President, Emmanuel Macron, has kicked off his first official trip to French Polynesia where residents of the more than 100 Islands will be eager to confront him.

 Despite being welcomed by flowers upon landing at the French colony, Macron will certainly be met with anything but flowers by the victims of France’s devastating impact of its decades-long testing of nuclear weapons in the archipelago. 

Macron is under pressure from the locals to address the controversial tests that Paris conducted not in its homeland but far away in French Polynesia a program that began in 1966. More than 100,000 people on the Islands are believed to be suffering from radiation exposure since the nuclear arms tests finally ended in 1996. Many of those who have been contaminated are suffering from diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma as well as other types of cancer including thyroid, throat and lung cancer.

 The residents of the Islands are demanding acknowledgment of the atomic program, an apology, and confirmation by Macron that all the victims will receive compensation. So far, only 63 civilians have reportedly been compensated by Paris since the French testing of 193 nukes to develop its nuclear weapons program.

 According to joint research by multiple institutions earlier this year, the damage to the Islands was far greater than France had publicly acknowledged. The study included 2,000 pages of recently declassified documents by the French Defense Ministry and one of the investigators told media outlets that “[France] has tried hard to bury the toxic heritage of these tests”. However, it’s not just the toxic nature of the path France took to acquire nuclear arms and the fact Paris denounces other countries over their peaceful nuclear program; there is another painful element to these tests for the residents of Polynesia. Locals say the fact that France conducted its nuclear weapons tests on the archipelago far away from home all the way in the South Pacific Ocean, midway between Australia and Mexico, is a symbol of racist French colonial attitudes that viewed the islanders as inferior to the residents of France.

 Critics would naturally ask why Paris did not conduct these very dangerous tests closer to a home near its borders. The 193 Association of victims of nuclear tests says “Just as )President Macron( has recognized as a crime the colonization that took place in Algeria, we also expect him to declare that it was criminal and that it is a form of colonization linked to nuclear power here in the Pacific."

 A French presidential official, speaking on condition of anonymity, claims Macron will be "encouraging several concrete steps" over the legacy of the tests, reports citing the unnamed official said this will involve the opening up of state archives and will address the issue of compensation. It remains to be seen if these steps will stem the anger of the locals, over the decades, pro-independence movements have increased in popularity which resulted in the Islands taking more control of its internal affairs and more autonomy. In 2014, French Polynesia's assembly passed a resolution demanding France pay around $1bn in compensation, only for the environmental damage that Paris caused by its nuclear weapons tests. 

Those tests on French Polynesia are very reminiscent of the United States’ testing of nuclear weapons on the Marshall Islands. During the height of the Cold War, from 1946 to 1958, Washington tested 67 nuclear weapons in what is now the Republic of the Marshall Islands, located in the central Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and the Philippines. 

This is perhaps one of the least-known and least-spoken tragedies that the U.S. has committed. 75 years later, Washington has yet to issue an apology to the victims, where radiological contamination is an ongoing problem. What makes this tragic crime even more disturbing is the way the U.S. tricked, deceived, and killed the residents of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. When it detonated scores of nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands, at times Washington destroyed entire Islands. 

One morning in 1954, the residents of the Rongelap Atoll and the Utrok Atoll woke up to the sound of the U.S. military testing one of its largest thermonuclear bombs, dubbed Bravo, but the residents had no idea what the mushroom cloud in the sea was. Nobody told them. It took a couple of hours until the fallout from a nuclear weapon fell down on them, contaminating their food, water, and skin. 

A few days later, the U.S. Army came to evacuate the residents, however by that time they had already suffered from radiation poisoning. Their hair had fallen out, their skin was burnt and they were vomiting. Essentially, the residents had become human trial guinea pigs for experimental purposes. In April 1955 the U.S. Naval Medical Institute in Maryland and the U.S. Radiological Defense Laboratory in California Compiled a 37-page report titled ‘Medical Examination of Rongelap People Six Months After Exposure to Fallout’. 

It details every aspect of the Rongelap Islands residents’ side effects to the nuclear bomb with a follow-up medical examination that was made six months after they had been exposed to the atomic bomb radiation. The document shows the residents were then brought back to Rongelap so U.S. researchers could have the opportunity of conducting further research on the future side effects of radiation on human beings. In 1956, a U.S. Atomic Agency Commission official said “While it is true that these people do not live the way that Westerners do, civilized people, it is nonetheless also true that they are more like us than the mice.”

 The future proved to be a disastrous one for the people of the Rongelap Islands. Cancer cases, miscarriages, and other deformities multiplied. By 1967, out of 19 children, who were younger than 10 (the day the Bravo nuclear bomb exploded) 17 had developed thyroid disorders and growths with one child dying of leukemia. By 1985, according to U.S. government documents and news reports at the time, the people of Rongelap asked Greenpeace to evacuate them after the U.S. refused to relocate them or to acknowledge their radiation exposure. In some cases, the U.S. did relocate residents from one Island to another without informing them what was happening, all the US army said was they were being transferred somewhere more luxurious. But there was no luxury and the residents returned to radioactive waste that would eventually kill them. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in Enewetak Atoll. Before the U.S. forces arrived and occupied the Islands, the natives lived a normal healthy life before being told to leave their land. Enewetak’s chain of Islands withstood the brunt of America’s last stage of nuclear bomb detonations. Between 1948 and 1958, 43 atomic bombs had been detonated there. 

After agreeing to a 1958 temporary deal on nuclear testing with the Soviet Union, the U.S. began using the Enewetak Islands as a testing ground for conventional and bioweapons. The U.S. would go on to shoot ballistic missiles at it from California. After the American military exhausted its military interest in the region, it invited the leaders of Enewetak back for the first time since 1946. The leaders were mortified by what they saw. Photographs show an apocalyptic scene of windswept, deforested islands. Meanwhile, until today, the Runit Island, contains radioactive soil and debris left behind from a nuclear weapons test; more than 3.1 million cubic feet to be more accurate. This includes lethal amounts of plutonium and so much nuclear waste that the U.S. refuses to take responsibility for it. It’s a disaster of untold magnitudes and it shows how the U.S. developed its nuclear weapons using other people’s land in a remote region, where the residents were deemed not worthy enough to be protected from 67 nuclear weapons tests. The decades that followed and America’s mistreatment of the residents of the Marshall Islands, not protecting them from any further harm, such as more radiation exposure, further revealed Washington’s true face to the world. The French followed a similar line.
 

Leave a Comment

8 + 5 =