France: 50 years after its first nuclear test

by Kenji Namba, Senior Staff Writer

Fifty years have passed since France conducted its first nuclear test and became the fourth nation to possess nuclear weapons. A move to provide government compensation to those who were exposed to radiation has finally gotten underway with the promulgation in this milestone year of legislation that will compensate the victims of France’s nuclear tests. During a recent visit to Hiroshima, Miho Cibot, 60, a peace activist who lives in the suburbs of Paris, spoke with the Chugoku Shimbun about France’s peace movement. In addition, Toshiki Mashimo, 56, a researcher who for many years has observed the movement to restore the rights of nuclear test victims, was asked about France’s nuclear policy and problems with the compensation law. The following are excerpts from those interviews.

Sense of solidarity with peace movement

Miho Cibot, peace activist in France

When I first began talking to people in France about the consequences of the atomic bombings around 1982, the word “peace” had no credibility. “Pacifism” and “pacifist” referred to those who did not cooperate in the war effort or participate in the resistance during World War II. They were regarded as people who simply avoided the war altogether.

When I said I was opposed to nuclear weapons, people would ask, “So, do you approve of chemical and biological weapons?” In France the anti-nuclear movement is part of the peace movement. We have to make it clear that we oppose all weapons.

When A-bomb survivors and other Japanese talk about the damage caused by the bombings and call on people to oppose nuclear weapons, some of them ask, “Then why did Japan take part in the war in Iraq?” If I suggest asking the French government to abolish its nuclear weapons, people say, “How can you ask us to abolish nuclear weapons while Japan is under the U.S. nuclear umbrella?”

France is a country with a strong faith in nuclear weapons.

Street named after activist

In Malakoff, the city I live in, there is a long street called Avenue Irene et Frederic Joliot-Curie. Irene was the daughter of Marie Curie, who, along with her husband, won the Nobel Prize in 1903. Irene was an outstanding scientist who married Frederic Joliot, another scientist. They won the Nobel Prize in 1935.

After the war, Frederic Joliot-Curie was named High Commissioner of the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (Atomic and Alternatives Energies Commission) (CEA). Meanwhile, in 1949 he launched an anti-nuclear movement with Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, and other world-class intellectuals and artists and served as president of the World Peace Council. In 1950 he initiated the Stockholm Appeal opposing nuclear weapons and was dismissed from his post with the CEA. Because of his contributions to peace, a street was named after him.

In 1954 the CEA set up a committee to study nuclear blasts and proceeded to develop nuclear weapons. Then in 1960 France became the fourth nation to possess nuclear weapons. This allowed France to take a path independent of both the United States and the Soviet Union.

The left wing opposed nuclear weapons, but in 1977 and 1978 the Communist and Socialist parties shifted to support for the theory of nuclear deterrence after a public opinion survey found that a Socialist-Communist coalition was likely to assume the reins of government. This led the parties to place top priority on forming a new coalition government. That’s how strong the public’s faith in nuclear weapons was.

This had an impact on the peace movement as well. In 1982, when I first became active in the movement, all the major political parties supported the theory of nuclear deterrence. The peace movement splintered, and some groups declined to express an opinion on nuclear testing. But today all of the peace groups are working together to abolish nuclear weapons.

Formation of group for those exposed to radiation

A man named Michel Verger has been active in the movement to abolish nuclear weapons for years. He was drafted into the army and participated in the nuclear tests in the Sahara Desert and became deaf in one ear as a result.

With the help of a former army doctor, he located many others who had been exposed to radiation and investigated their illnesses and the causes of their deaths. The rates of cancer and infertility and the percentage of children with abnormalities were about the same as those for the victims of nuclear tests conducted by England and the United States. There was absolutely no compensation for the victims of nuclear tests in France, and in 2001 military personnel, civilians employed by the military, and families of victims founded an organization for those who had been exposed to radiation. Similar groups were also formed in French Polynesia and Algeria.

Those who had become ill as a result of the nuclear tests filed a number of lawsuits and continued to win them. So this year the government finally promulgated a bill providing them with compensation.

But this compensation law has many flaws. Under this bill most of the residents of French Polynesia and Algeria will probably not be recognized as having been exposed to radiation as the result of nuclear tests. I often wonder what would have happened if information about the measures that have been taken for A-bomb survivors in Japan had been available sooner and if information had been shared.

Miho Cibot
Born in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1949, Ms. Cibot is an adviser to Mayors for Peace France. Along with her French husband, she is a peace activist in France, where she has lived since 1975. She produced an animated film called “On a Paper Crane,” with the Japanese version released in 1993 and the English and French versions released in 1994.

Compensation for victims: halfway measure

Toshiki Mashimo, lecturer at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies and Kokugakuin University

It has not been well known that there were victims of France’s nuclear tests because the facts about the harmful effects of the tests have been covered up, and the possession of nuclear weapons has been strongly advocated.

During the 37-year period from 1960 through 1996, France conducted a total of 210 nuclear tests in the Sahara Desert in its colony of Algeria and in French Polynesia. Relative to the size of its nuclear arsenal, this was a large number of tests.

Charles de Gaulle, who became president in 1958, withdrew France’s forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, shifting France’s foreign policy, which had until then been deferential to the United States. France then rushed to develop nuclear weapons citing the threat of invasion from the Soviet Union and the need to distance itself from the United States.

A total of 13 underground tests were conducted in the Sahara. In four of those tests, radioactive materials escaped the tunnel and spewed out onto the surface of the earth. In May 1962 about 2,000 people were exposed to radiation. One of the government ministers who was present for the test later died of leukemia.

The French government releases almost no information on its nuclear tests, citing “defense secrets,” and records of individuals’ exposure to radiation were not disclosed to the individuals themselves or to their families. Following France’s declaration of a halt to its nuclear testing in 1996, several official reports related to the effects of the tests on health and the environment were released. But all of them stated that on the whole there had been no effect on the environment or health.

The victims of France’s nuclear tests can be roughly divided into three groups: military personnel mobilized for the tests, French scientists and technicians, and residents of Algeria and French Polynesia, which were the sites of the tests.

Gathering for meeting in Hiroshima

Following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, these people began to express their concerns and ask for the facts, but it took more than 10 years for the victims to band together. In June 2001, 10 volunteers got together and formed the Association des Vétérans des Essais Nucléaires (Association for Veterans of Nuclear Tests) (AVEN). The following month the Association Moruroa e Tatou (Moruroa and Us), a group for victims of the tests in French Polynesia, was launched. While the victims in France and French Polynesia worked closely together, the movement in Algeria lagged.

The gap was bridged in August 2002 when a meeting of the victims of French nuclear tests was held in Hiroshima. Two representatives of AVEN, three from Moruroa e Tatou and one from Algeria attended. It was the first time that representatives of all three came together. The following year, the Association des Vétérans des Essais Nucléaires Francais au Sahara Algérien (Association for Veterans of French Nuclear Tests in the Algerian Sahara) was established.

Very few receive compensation

Fifty years after the first nuclear test was conducted, a law awarding compensation to the nuclear test victims, the so-called Morin Law, has finally been passed. The French government, which until then had contended that there were no nuclear test victims in France, recognized the harmful effects of the tests and awarded compensation to the victims. But the law does little to restore the victims’ rights.

Only a very few people will receive compensation. When the defense minister submitted the bill, he said that nearly 150,000 people had been involved in nuclear testing but that only between a few dozen and a few hundred would be able to receive compensation under the new law.

Japan has a major role to play. The support measures and systems for the A-bomb survivors, which have been achieved through many years of effort, will serve as a useful reference for those overseas. People around the world who have been exposed to radiation are seeking that sort of information. If it can just be translated, then this information can be shared via the Internet and the movements can be linked.

Toshiki Mashimo
Born in Kyoto in 1954, Mr. Mashimo is a lecturer at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies and Kokugakuin University. He conducts research studies on France’s nuclear and energy policies and communicates with victims of France’s nuclear tests as well as environmental activists and Green Party members throughout Europe.

Key words
French nuclear testing
France launched its program of nuclear testing in 1960 in the Sahara Desert in Algeria, which was a French colony at the time. France continued to conduct nuclear tests there even after Algeria became independent of France in 1962. By 1966 France had conducted four atmospheric tests and 13 underground tests. In 1966 France moved its test site to the Moruroa and Fangataufa Atolls in French Polynesia in the southern Pacific Ocean. A total of 46 atmospheric tests and 147 underground tests were conducted in that area until testing was halted in 1996.

Outline of the Morin Law

When a correlation between the nuclear tests conducted by France and the diseases of those who were exposed to the radiation released by the test blasts can be presumed, compensation will be provided in a lump sum. Cases, however, where the risk can be discounted will not be eligible for compensation.

Applicants must submit proof that they were in a covered area at a time described in the French government decree.

A total of 18 diseases including leukemia (except for chronic lymphatic leukemia), as well as various types of cancers, have been designated for compensation.

The compensation committee, charged with approving and rejecting applications for compensation, is comprised of a chair and seven others. These seven are designated by the Defense Ministry and the Health and Sports Ministry.

An advisory panel to track the effects of French nuclear tests is convened twice a year.

(Originally published on Dec. 6, 2010)

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