French fallout in a Polynesian paradise

Never have I travelled anywhere as remote, or as beautiful, as the Pacific atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa. But not so long before I was there, in 2000, they were notorious as the location of nearly 200 nuclear tests



Mururoa atoll

It was as if we were in a holiday brochure. A buffet by the shore of a tropical lagoon, coral sand beneath our feet and chilled rosé wine to accompany the lobster salad – what could be more agreeable?

But the name of this particular South Seas idyll is Mururoa, and until four years ago there were atomic explosions here. Over three decades France detonated nearly 200 nuclear devices on Mururoa and the neighbouring atoll of Fangataufa. Somewhere beneath our feet – the French authorities will not say exactly where, for security reasons – there are shafts drilled thousands of feet through the coral and into the basalt bedrock, containing radioactive deposits with a half-life of up to 24,000 years.

Having caused international outrage by persisting with tests long after other Western countries had stopped, France now wants to show that it has become a good nuclear citizen. We have been brought halfway round the world, nearly 24 hours’ flying time from Paris to Tahiti and another three hours to this atoll, to see for ourselves that the testing centre has been dismantled, and that the French urge to maintain its nuclear deterrent has left no threat to the fragile environment of the South Pacific.

Fifteen minutes by helicopter from Mururoa, we land on Fangataufa, once more uninhabited – at least by man. A giant blockhouse still looms over the trees, marking the site where France triggered its first thermonuclear explosion back in 1968; the last French test of all was also on Fangataufa, and that was on 27 January 1996.

At Mururoa the French took an atoll and covered it in concrete, building a ring road more than 40 miles long and a town which at the height of the testing programme housed more than 3,000 technicians, military personnel and Polynesian labourers. Now only 24 soldiers remain, guarding the site and maintaining the equipment which monitors the deadly material left behind. Everything for our visit, including the buffet lunch and the trucks to take us round the island, had to be brought in by sea from Tahiti, 750 miles away.

“I feel like the curator of a museum,” said Alain Barthoux, one of several nostalgic veterans of France’s nuclear programme who accompanied us, and you could see what he meant. Part of the roadway around Mururoa has already collapsed under pounding seas.

The somewhat melancholy air created by so much decay reinforced the message we were meant to carry away: that the days when France was prepared to defy almost any opposition in pursuit of what it saw as its national nuclear goals are past. Like Britain (but unlike the US), France has both signed and ratified the comprehensive test ban treaty, and now projects itself as an apostle of non-proliferation.


Papeete: riots followed French nuclear testing

In French Polynesia itself, the political fallout still lingers from France’s decision to resume nuclear testing in the 1990s. The first detonation was the trigger for several days of rioting in Tahiti, in which shops and businesses in the centre of Papeete, the capital, were looted and burned. “For all the gestures towards autonomy,” said John Taroanui Doom, secretary-general of Polynesia’s influential Evangelical Church. “It revealed that we were simply colonial subjects.”

Elections in 1996 saw the previously feeble independence movement win a third of the seats in the Polynesian assembly. The next polls are not due for nearly another year, but already the French-leaning political establishment, dominated by the veteran prime minister, Gaston Flosse, is spending the generous annual subsidy from Paris on vote-winning projects.

For French Polynesia the issue is how to cope with the loss of its main industry, nuclear testing. Three decades of activity at Mururoa brought space-age technology and a flood of money to this remote corner of the world, 118 islands scattered across a swathe of the Pacific Ocean the size of Europe, but with only 220,000 people.

So many were lured from the copra plantations and fishing villages of the rest of the archipelago by the prospect of good jobs at the testing centre that more than half the population now lives on one island, Tahiti.

Among them is Machoro, 45, a big, bearded man wearing a straw hat and a slightly bewildered smile. “I worked for nine and a half years at Mururoa, cleaning up after explosions,” he said in strongly-accented French. “It was very important for me, because I earned a lot of money. I have 13 children, and I wanted to build a house. I quit in 1990, because I wanted to work in Tahiti. I have done some fishing since then, but I still haven’t built my house.”

For John Doom, who spent 15 years in Geneva with the World Council of Churches, people like Machoro sum up the mixed blessings of Mururoa. “He has earned more money than he could ever expect with his education,” said Mr Doom, “but he has been cast adrift.” The same could be said of Polynesia as a whole: the test centre brought a European lifestyle and Parisian price levels to a territory which is now expected to make a living from fishing and tourism. Unemployment is reckoned to be around 15 per cent.

“It is true that Polynesia is shifting very fast from one type of society to another,” said Jean Aribaud, the French High Commissioner, who would once have been called the governor. “But the slump that was feared after the test centre closed has not happened. We are making progress in tourism, where it is not just big hotels on Tahiti, but also small pensions on the outer islands, in fishing and in the black pearls you find here.”

Others retort that this is small beer compared with the annual French subsidy of 6bn francs (about £600m), of which 1bn francs is intended to make up for the closure of Mururoa. This will stop in 2003. Much of the money, however, goes into Papeete’s top-heavy administration – Mr Flosse and the rest of his 18-strong Cabinet are paid more than ministers in the French government, and are building themselves a lavish administration complex which in the Polynesian context rivals Versailles.

Enough of the gravy trickles down, however, to make it unlikely that the independantistes will break through in next year’s election. Their stronghold is the municipal complex at Fa’aa, a district of Papeete, which is built in the style of traditional Pacific island longhouses. Here one can find James Salmon, a Polynesian Liberation Front MP whose name, like that of John Doom, reflects the influence of the London Missionary Society in these parts. France colonised Polynesia more than a century and a half ago, but there are still more Protestants than Catholics in the population.

“When we become independent, we will take France to the International Court of Justice to demand compensation for Mururoa,” said Mr Salmon. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency and independent bodies have given the testing centre a clean bill of health, he insisted: “There is no scientific proof that it’s safe. Those French people who campaign against the effects of Chernobyl and so on should realise that it’s peanuts compared with what France did to us.”

On this issue, however, as on the question of independence, the MP is probably crying in the wind. “I think the independantistes will be lucky to do as well again in 2001,” said Mr Doom. “It will take us 20 years to realise the consequences of the tests,” said Mr Salmon, and he might have been speaking of the effects on Polynesian society as well.