Opinion piece by Professor David Robie of AUT’s School of Communication Studies, who travelled on board the Rainbow Warrior for 10 weeks before the bombing and wrote the book Eyes of Fire. A fresh edition was published this week.
New Zealand wasn’t the only target of French state-backed terrorism three decades ago. Nor was the Rainbow Warrior when this peaceful environmental campaign ship was bombed by secret agents under our noses.
The attack on the Greenpeace campaign flagship on 10 July 1985 was part of a Pacific-wide strategy to crush pro-independence and nuclear-free movements in both New Caledonia and French Polynesia during the 1980s.
This was not widely understood in New Zealand at the time or reported on by local media.
Opération Satanique, as the “satanic” Rainbow Warrior sabotage plan was aptly named, got the green light because of political rivalry between then socialist President François Mitterrand and right-wing Prime Minister Jacques Chirac that pushed them into cynical point-scoring against each other.
Although misleading and laughable as early Australian or New Zealand press reports were about who was thought to be responsible for the bombing in Auckland Harbour - focusing on mercenaries, or the French Foreign Legion based in New Caledonia and so on - there was certainly a connection with the neocolonial mind-set of the time.
New Caledonia then had the largest military garrison in the Pacific, about 6000 French Pacific Regiment and other troops, larger than the New Zealand armed forces, with about one soldier or paramilitary officer for every 24 citizens in the territory – the nearest Pacific neighbour to Auckland, less than a three hour flight away.
A small Pacific fleet included the nuclear submarine Rubis, reputed to have picked up one unit of the French secret service agents involved in Operation Satanic off the yacht Ouvea, scuttling her in the Coral Sea, and then spirited them to safety in Tahiti.
A long line of human rights violations and oppressive acts were carried out against Kanak activists seeking independence starting with a political stand-off in 1984, a year before the Rainbow Warrior bombing.
Parties favouring independence came together that year under an umbrella known as the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) and began agitating for independence from France with a series of blockades and political demonstrations over the next four years.
The struggle echoed the current Melanesian activism in West Papua today with advocates seeking political justice and independence from Indonesian colonial rule.
The Greenpeace tragedy was one of several happening in the Pacific at the time, and this was really overshadowed by the Rongelap evacuation when the Rainbow Warrior crew ferried some 320 islanders, plagued by ill-health from the US atmospheric mega-nuclear tests in the 1950s, from their home in the Marshall Islands to a new islet, Mejato, on Kwajalein Atoll.
Over the next few years, after the start of the Kanak uprising, New Caledonia suffered a series of bloody incidents because of hard-line French neo-colonial policies:
The social scars from these events affected France’s standing in the Pacific for many years. While relations have dramatically improved since then, it still rankles with both many New Zealanders and Greenpeace campaigners that Paris has never given a full state apology.
Then it seemed highly unlikely that in less than two decades nuclear testing would be finally abandoned in the South Pacific (1996), and Tahiti’s leading nuclear-free and pro-independence politician, Oscar Manutahi Temaru, would emerge as French Polynesia’s new president four times (from 2004) and usher in a refreshing “new order” with a commitment to pan-Pacific relations.
Although Tahitian independence is nominally off the agenda for the moment, far-reaching changes in the Pacific region are inevitable.
Watch a Pacific Media Centre video interview with David Robie here:
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