President Emmanuel Macron has recognised France's "debt" to French Polynesia for nuclear tests conducted in the South Pacific between 1966 and 1996.
But Mr Macron’s speech in Papeete early on Wednesday morning Paris time fell short of the formal apology demanded by the Association 193, which is named after the number of tests.
The French leader said he "fully accepted" and defended the decision by General Charles de Gaulle and his successors to endow France with nuclear weapons.
Wearing garlands of Polynesian flowers, Mr Macron spoke at the close of a four-day trip to islands on three archipelagos spread over an area the size of Europe in the South Pacific Ocean.
“The nation has a debt to French Polynesia,” Mr Macron told local officials. “This debt is for having provided a place for these tests, in particular those [atmospheric tests] between 1966 and 1974, which can absolutely not be said to have been clean.”
The French military maintained the myth of the “clean bomb” through three decades of testing.
“There were no lies,” Mr Macron claimed. Rather, “The risks taken were not properly assessed, including by the military”. He admitted that “the same tests would not have been carried out” in mainland France.
“We did it here because it was far away, because it was lost in the middle of the Pacific.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Macron stopped on the island of Moorea to talk with 50 militants from Association 193. Some of the protesters carried pro-independence banners.
“I cannot ask you to trust me after people lied to you for so long by not sharing information,” Mr Macron told demonstrators. “Trust comes from sharing everything, from being transparent. It’s true that wasn’t done until now.”
Mr Macron said victims should be better compensated. It was the duty of France “to accompany” Polynesians suffering from new forms of cancer. Mainland France would send doctors and researchers. But, he added, “it’s another thing to say that everyone suffering from new forms of cancer, even if they have nothing to do with the tests, must be cared for because of the tests. It’s not the same thing”.
Polynesian women between the ages of 40 and 50 have the highest rate of thyroid cancer in the world, the former head of the local social security administration, Patrick Galenon, told Agence France Presse. Mr Galenon wants the French government to reimburse €670 million which he says French Polynesia has spent to treat disease caused by radioactivity.
“I accept and want the truth and transparency with you,” Mr Macron said. He promised that archives will be opened “except where they could reveal information that would endanger our [nuclear] deterrence”.
France conducted 17 nuclear tests in the Sahara desert before it transferred its nuclear firing range to the South Pacific atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa in 1966. The last test took place in January 1996, after then president Jacques Chirac broke a three-year moratorium declared by François Mitterrand. The Chirac tests sparked protests outside French embassies around the world, including in Dublin.
Up to 110,000 Polynesians, virtually the entire population of the overseas French territory, may have been contaminated by the tests, according to Toxic. Investigation into French Nuclear Tests in Polynesia, by Sébastien Philippe and Tomas Statius.
A two-year study completed earlier this year by the investigative website Disclose, the environmental advocacy group Interpt and the Science & Global Security programme at Princeton University, concluded that about 110,000 people were potentially affected by radioactivity over French Polynesia in 1974. The investigators examined 2,000 pages of declassified French military documents and found the rate of contamination was seriously underestimated by the French Atomic Energy Commission, CEA.
The study found that the CEA underestimated ground contamination by more than 40 per cent. Yet France has based compensation on CEA statistics. The study said that aside from military personnel and contractors, only 63 people had been compensated by this year.
The separatist leader Oscar Temaru says the nuclear tests constitute a crime against humanity. His supporters say they will file a suit against France with the International Criminal Court. Mr Temaru claims France continues to lie, and that the majority of French people support his cause.