France’s President Emmanuel Macron has failed to apologize to French Polynesia over nuclear tests carried out in the South Pacific territory between 1966 and 1996 which had devastating impacts.
“I want truth and transparency,” Macron said in a speech to Polynesian officials on Tuesday, adding that there should be better compensation for victims of the nuclear tests.
“The nation owes a debt to French Polynesia. This debt is from having conducted these tests, in particular those between 1966 and 1974.”
Macron arrived in French Polynesia on Saturday for a four-day visit.
Residents in the archipelago of more than 100 islands 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of the islands far exceeded what French authorities had acknowledged, citing declassified military documents and unpublished testimonies.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, adding that only 63 Polynesian civilians had been compensated for radiation exposure in an area rife with leukemia, lymphoma and other cancers.
Macron denied cover-up of radiation exposure, saying, “I want to tell you clearly that the military who carried them out did not lie to you. They took the same risks... There were no lies, there were risks that weren’t calculated, including by the military.”
“I think it’s true that we would not have done the same tests in La Creuse or in Brittany,” he said on Tuesday, referring to regions inside France.
Macron’s remarks dashed hopes of an official apology.
“We’re expecting an apology from the president,” Auguste Uebe-Carlson, head of the 193 Association of victims of nuclear tests, said ahead of Macron’s visit.
“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.”
Lena Lenormand, the vice president of the association, renewed the call for an apology as she met Macron on the island of Moorea on Tuesday.
“There are urgent demands, people who are suffering. We’re asking you to own what the state did to these Polynesian people, for an apology and real support,” she told Macron, adding “We can’t help but think that you are at the end of your term, so words are one thing, but afterwards, what will be done concretely?”
In response, Macron said he was “committed to changing things” regarding compensation.