French President Emmanuel Macron is under pressure to apologize and confirm compensation for the catastrophic effects of decades of nuclear testing in French Polynesia during his first official trip to the group of islands.
Macron arrived in French Polynesia on Saturday for a four-day visit, during which he plans to address the impact of nuclear testing in the islands from 1966 to 1996, when France developed atomic weapons, among other things.
Residents in the archipelago of more than 100 islands, located in the South Pacific, see the nuclear tests as evidence of racist colonial attitudes that disregarded the lives of people in the semi-autonomous territory.
In March, the French investigative website Disclose reported that the extent of the radioactive fallout that struck the inhabitants of the islands far exceeded what French authorities had acknowledged, citing declassified military documents and unpublished testimonies.
“Approximately 110,000 people were infected, almost the entire Polynesian population at the time,” Disclose said. “Modelling toxic clouds to support, we also unveil how the French authorities have concealed the true impact of nuclear testing on the health of Polynesians for more than fifty years.”
It also said only 63 Polynesian civilians had been compensated for radiation exposure since the tests ended in 1996, in an area rife with leukemia, lymphoma and other cancers.
“In Polynesia, the experience of French nuclear tests is written in the flesh and blood of the inhabitants. Strontium has eaten into bones, cesium has eaten away at muscles and genitals, iodine has seeped into the thyroid,” the investigative website reported.
Highest thyroid cancer rates in world
According to Patrick Galenon, the former chairman of the territory's CPS social security system, female Polynesians aged 40 to 50 “have the highest thyroid cancer rates in the world,” AFP reported.
Galenon estimated that the CPS has spent 670 million euros ($790 million) to treat illnesses caused by radiation since 1985.
A French presidential official said that Macron will be “encouraging several concrete steps” over the impacts of nuclear tests, with the opening up of state archives and individual compensation.
“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 recognized as a crime the colonization that took place in Algeria, we also expect him to declare that it was criminal and that it is a form of colonization linked to nuclear power here in the Pacific.”
Spanning an area comparable in size to Western Europe, French Polynesia has a population of around 280,000 who live in a huge swath of island groups, with Tahiti being the most densely populated of the islands.