The French government medical researcher concluded his letter with an ominous statement: “the atmospheric nuclear tests conducted by France contributed to increasing the incidence of thyroid cancer in French Polynesia.” For the first time, a French government official has admitted what the Tahitians have suspected for many years—their high rate of cancer is caused by the atomic and hydrogen bomb testing programs of past decades. French Polynesia President Oscar Temaru made the letter public on July 28.
News media in the Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe publicized the news, sometimes with predictable clichés. The lead in one Pacific magazine said, “the political bomb that French Polynesia President Oscar Temaru dropped during a budgetary debate on Friday was still producing fallout four days later in Papeete and Paris.” It should have added that an increasingly explosive political situation in French Polynesia had almost reached critical mass not long before the President read the letter.
Only a week before, on July 23, President Temaru achieved an oratorical peak of his own when he accused unnamed politicians in a televised speech of trying to overthrow his government. The opposition party responded the next day with a press conference at which they accused the president of being “blind, deaf, irresponsible, incompetent and lying.”
These bitter charges and counter-charges, the staple of recent French Polynesian politics, continue the political animosity between the president’s party, which advocates a gradual move toward independence, and the more conservative opposition party of Gaston Flosse, which advocates a continued relationship with France and a stable political climate that will support business interests. The vicious invective during the last week of July set the tone for a special budgetary session of the French Polynesia Assembly scheduled for July 27, called to discuss the government’s needs for additional funds.
But on Friday, July 28, instead of giving his budget speech, Temaru read aloud to the Assembly the letter from Florent de Vathaire, the head of the cancer epidemiology research unit at the French government’s Institute of Health and Medical Research (known by its French acronym INSERN). It was written on July 17 to Jurien de la Gravière, another French government official who is responsible to the Ministry of Defense for nuclear issues. De Vathaire also sent a copy of his letter to President Temaru because he felt he needed to honor a promise to let the people of French Polynesia know the results of his research.
The president probably broke the news as he did because he felt it might help sway Tahitians against French rule. The conservatives reacted angrily. The Assembly broke into acrimonious debate as soon as the president finished. The Speaker of the Assembly, Philip Schyle, told the president that he thought the letter was a digression that he could not accept. As the debate surged, Schyle suspended the special budgetary session until the following Monday.
The French government Ministry of Defense quickly announced that since the research results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, the government would delay any reactions until it has studied the written scientific study.
Unfortunately, De Vathaire’s statements to the media on several occasions since the announcement by Temaru on July 28 have been somewhat contradictory. His original letter was not terribly alarmist. “Our study shows that the nuclear tests carried out by France have very probably increased the number of thyroid cancers, but in a limited way. From our current assessment, of all thyroid cancers that appeared in French Polynesia between 1984 and 2002, about ten were due to nuclear testing.” Statistically significant but not overly startling.
However, in comments to the newspaper La Dépêche de Tahiti on August 1, De Vathaire gave a more alarming conclusion to the five-year study. “In at least 20 cases, thyroid cancer was linked to the consequences of the atmospheric tests.” The correct numbers will appear when the report is published, but whether one number or the other is correct, it is obvious that a statistically significant number of incidents of thyroid cancer have been conclusively linked to the French atom bomb testing program.
Despite political charades in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, the Tahitian people have a right to be suspicious. Their past efforts to get information about the effects of the testing from the French government have been unsuccessful. A French Polynesian government commission in January reported that radioactive fallout from the remote atolls where the bombs were exploded in the 1960s and 1970s, located over 700 miles southeast of Papeete, had reached many of the Tahitian islands, including Papeete. The committee believed that the high cancer rate in the islands was linked to the testing.
The committee found that the French government was unwilling to cooperate with their inquiry. Tea Hirshon, the chair of the committee, charged that government health, weather, and nuclear agencies failed to respond to their queries. When they asked to visit the islands that had been the site of the testing, their request was unanswered.
The Hirshon committee did publish the texts of 25 secret government documents that clearly showed how the government had been lying to the Tahitians when they maintained that people had not been affected by nuclear fallout. The documents, leaked to an anti-nuclear journal, made it clear that all the atmospheric tests in the 1960s produced significant fallout over populated areas, despite French public denials. The chair of the committee added, “we are scandalized by the absence of cooperation and the contempt shown by the defence ministry and state officials towards the elected representatives of Polynesia.”
The current scientific study may perhaps finally prompt the French government to admit to the atrocities they committed on the Tahitians several decades ago, and to begin a process of reparations. Whether these revelations will hasten the movement toward independence, or at least prompt more respect from Paris toward the sensitivities of its Pacific colony, remains to be seen.