PAPEETE: French President Emmanuel Macron faced pressure to apologise for the devastating impact of decades of nuclear testing as he kicked off his first official trip to French Polynesia.
During his four-day visit, Macron plans to address the legacy of nuclear testing from 1966 to 1996 as France developed atomic weapons, as well as discuss the South Pacific territory’s strategic role and the existential risk of rising seas posed by global warming.
Residents in the sprawling archipelago of more than 100 islands located midway between Mexico and Australia are hoping Macron apologises and confirms compensation for radiation victims.
The tests remain a source of deep resentment, seen as evidence of racist colonial attitudes that disregarded the lives of islanders.
After touching down on Saturday, Macron, whose 2020 trip was postponed due to the pandemic, met hospital workers fighting Covid-19 in the semi-autonomous territory where many are wary of vaccines.
“I want to send a very strong message to call on everyone to get vaccinated,” he said, adding: “When you’re vaccinated, you’re protected and you hardly spread the virus, or at least much less.”
Macron will be “encouraging several concrete steps” regarding the legacy of nuclear tests, with the opening up of state archives and individual compensation, a French presidential official who asked not to be named said.
French officials denied any cover-up of radiation exposure at a meeting earlier this month with delegates from the semi-autonomous territory led by President Edouard Fritch.
The meeting came after French investigative website Disclose reported in March that the impact from the fallout was far more extensive than authorities had acknowledged, citing declassified French military documents on the 193 tests.
Only 63 Polynesian civilians have been compensated for radiation exposure since the tests ended in 1996, Disclose said, estimating that more than 100,000 people may have been contaminated in total, with leukaemia, lymphoma and other cancers rife.
“We’re expecting an apology from the president,” said Auguste Uebe-Carlson, head of the 193 Association of victims of nuclear tests.
“Just as he has recognised as a crime the colonisation that took place in Algeria, we also expect him to declare that it was criminal and that it is a form of colonisation linked to nuclear power here in the Pacific.” Patrick Galenon, the former chairman of the territory’s CPS social security system, said female Polynesians aged 40 to 50 “have the highest thyroid cancer rates in the world.”
He estimates the CPS has spent 670 million euros ($790 million) to treat illnesses caused by radiation since 1985.
Macron, who arrived in French Polynesia after a visit to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, will also lay out his strategic vision for the South Pacific, where China has made no secret of its push for military and commercial dominance.
One of three French territories in the Pacific, French Polynesia has a population of around 280,000 over a huge swath of island groups spanning an area comparable in size to Western Europe. Tahiti is the most densely populated of the islands.
Macron “will present the Indo-Pacific strategy and the position France intends to maintain in this increasingly polarised zone”, the Elysee official said.
Macron also plans to address risks for the islands from rising sea levels as well as cyclones that some scientists warn could become more dangerous due to climate change.