France reconsiders compensation bids by nuclear test veterans

4:49 am on 6 July 2017

French Polynesia's nuclear test veterans have been given fresh hope that France will at last compensate them for the poor health caused by the weapons tests.

50 years after the first nuclear test, and 20 years after the last. The French Polynesia atoll of Mururoa is still largely a no-go zone.

50 years after the first nuclear test, and 20 years after the last. The French Polynesia atoll of Mururoa is still largely a no-go zone. Photo: AFP

Paris has decided to reconsider hundreds of compensation claims which it had earlier rejected.

The news came amid commemorations in Tahiti of the first of 193 tests which the French military carried out in Moruroa and Fangataufa over a 30-year period.

The event in Papeete was also to remember two long-standing campaigners John Doom and Bruno Barrillot who died in the past year.

Although France passed a law in 2010 to compensate victims, its criteria were worded too narrow to be relevant. Now a review of the Loi Morin - the law named after the defence minister at the time - gives new hope.

A letter from the French Polynesian president Edourad Fritch was sent to the organisations fighting for recognition of the damage caused by the tests.

"I have the pleasure to advise you that the Council of State, based on a opinion from June 28th, has indicated that this reform will come into force immediately and that the the Nuclear Test Victims Committee will review all the cases which it had earlier rejected."

French Polynesia's president advises test veterans of compensation procedure changes

French Polynesia's president advises test veterans of compensation procedure changes Photo: supplied French Polynesian presidency

Roland Oldham, who is the president of the Moruroa e tatou test veterans organisation, is cautiously welcoming the news.

"Some people say that is good news but as far as I am concerned I want some precise and concrete action. I want a meeting with a calendar on all the issues, for example the Loi Morin. When is the next meeting of this committee for compensation - questions like that?", he asked.

Roland Oldham, head of Mururoa e Tatou

Roland Oldham, head of Mururoa e Tatou Photo: RNZ / Walter Zweifel

During the election campaign in France, Emmanuel Macron vowed to settle the nuclear compensation claims in full and in a shock to the establishment, he described colonisation as a crime against humanity.

He made the declaration in February during a visit to Algeria which was used by the French military for nuclear weapons tests until they were continued in the South Pacific.

This stance also feeds into the campaign of the Maohi Protestant Church, the dominant denomination in Tahiti.

To the dismay of the French administrators in Papeete, the church keeps referring to the tests as a crime against humanity.

This claim is now being picked up by the pro-independence opposition whose leader Oscar Temaru wants to take the Macron administration to task.

"Here is a complaint pending which is part of the case we'll look at in New York in October so that this matter can be transferred to the International Criminal Court," he told local television.

A veteran anti-nuclear campaigner and former politician Tea Hirshon sees momentum building. But she doubts the motivation of those expressing concern as the anti-independence politicians for years ignored the plight of the victims.

"We are going step by step for reparation and we are far from it. I think the president is using nuclear testing also as a pressure on the French government to get more money," she said.

When France ended its nuclear weapons testing programme it agreed to pay the then government of Gaston Flosse more than $US100 million a year to reconfigure the economy which had become reliant on the influx of money from the military and its associated services.

The payment was to be limited for a decade but Flosse succeeded in securing a perpetual continuation of the transfer.

Gaston Flosse

Gaston Flosse Photo: AFP

Flosse, shunted out of office over a corruption conviction and aghast to have failed to secure a pardon for his crimes, prompted his dominant Tahoeraa Huiraatira Party in 2014 to try to seek $US930 million from France in compensation.

The sum was to be paid for the environmental damage and for the continued French occupation of the test sites which remain no-go zones excised from French Polynesia.

The damage to the atolls is hard to assess but France doubts they could collapse.

Politicians in Tahiti have varied their views of the tests over the past decades but now converge to being collectively concerned that their legacy is lasting for generations.

Edouard Fritch and Gaston Flosse in 2013

Edouard Fritch and Gaston Flosse campaigning in 2013 before falling out and splitting their party Photo: RNZI Walter Zweifel

The concern is reflected in the public being alarmed at illnesses, fears of hereditary conditions and a health care system too poor to cope.

Association 193 is a relatively new group, led by a priest, which has collected tens of thousands of signatures to push for a referendum on the nuclear legacy.

For Roland Oldham, there is still only talk.

"We have been here for so long and we know politicians so well that all I'm awaiting from them is some concrete action," he said.

Although the weapons testing stopped in 1996, the nuclear question won't go away any time soon.

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