PETER O’HARA. My Lunch with French Secret Service Agents Who Sank Rainbow Warrior.

Dateline: 1986 in the remote South Pacific. For thirty years French ‘atomic bombs’ were exploded in atoll islands of the Tuamotus archipelago in French Polynesia. I was Qantas area manager based in the capital Papeete. A dream job some would say, and interesting times in that hub of political agitation. Lunch with French secret service agents following the infamous Rainbow Warrior debacle was certainly not in my job description.

To protest against the nuclear testing, Greenpeace sent its flagship Rainbow Warrior to patrol international waters off Moruroa, where bombs were detonated after moving the testing ground from Fangataufa. Australian and New Zealand governments were protesting loudly and a groundswell of public outrage in Australia lead to boycotts of French produce, including champagne! 

Meantime in Papeete, the French government in connivance with the local Territory government (given some autonomy in 1986), suppressed news of the ongoing explosions 600 kms away. Local papers only carried a small paragraph after each detonation, relaying NZ government observatory reports of seismic activity in the test area. 

The French government, through its control of civil aviation, also tried to stop local aircraft operators flying news reporters and photographers in the area. One pilot defied authorities at the height of the protests and took a film crew from Gamma Television (independent French productions) to get footage. The crew thought that as Australians we would help sneak out their film cassettes on a Qantas flight to Los Angeles, but my airport manager politely refused. Qantas was clearly the most visible Australian presence in Tahiti (the Consulate in Noumea covered French Polynesia), and we were prudent.

On 10 July 1985 French secret service (DGSE) agents detonated a bomb sinking Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour, unfortunately killing a Portuguese photographer on board. Agents Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur were arrested two weeks later and charged with murder. They pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received ten year sentences.

The French and New Zealand governments then got into a slanging match and mutual trade boycotts, with France threatening to block NZ access to EEC trade. In July 1986 the UN brokered a deal, whereby France apologised for the Rainbow Warrior incident and paid compensation of $13m to New Zealand.

In exchange, Mafart and Prieur were released from Auckland prison to serve out their sentences on the island of Hao in French Polynesia, which was ironically the military staging post and transit airport for all French aircraft flying into Moruroa for the nuclear testing program.

Hao was also the designated alternate airport for Qantas aircraft in case of emergency at Papeete, as it was about an hour away and could take our 747s. A few months later French Civil Aviation invited local French and foreign airline managers to visit Hao for an inspection of the airport facilities.

Our airport manager and I accepted, but tellingly Air New Zealand was not invited, so we were the only ‘enemy’ representatives on board that ageing military Caravelle flight from Papeete to Hao, along with industry colleagues from other airlines.

My French was fluent and we were cordially welcomed by the base commandant and his entourage, who showed us the hangar facilities and airstrip, impressively constructed across the narrow atoll with each end jutting into the ocean.

With official duties completed our group was invited to lunch at the officer’s mess. A small outdoor dining area on the palm-fringed beach looked out on the turquoise atoll waters, and we were about ten diners at a round table, with the admiral presiding. 

As we were seated, a slim woman in French naval officer uniform approached. She was introduced as Lieutenant Prieur and sat down next to me. Dominique and I made small talk under the watchful gaze of the admiral across the table. Mafart, who had been disguised as her husband during the bombing operation, joined us for lunch too. Despite the French government undertaking to keep them in detention on Hao, it was clear that he had just returned from a visit to Paris, and Dominique had also been back to France. Their couple cover name in NZ had been Turenge. 

The animosity and official tensions between France and New Zealand were very high and public interest too. We were undoubtedly the only outsiders to see the faux (false) Turenges on their tropical island retreat. I could not figure out why the French government would show us that they were flaunting the agreed terms of settlement. Insouciance?

I reckon the Auckland Herald/Star would have paid handsomely for my lunch story, and it’s a pity we didn’t have a group photo to share afterwards. However I didn’t think Qantas would have appreciated the scoop being sourced from one of its managers, and don’t remember even informing my head office colleagues. 

The rest is history, as they say. Mafart returned to France in 1987 due to ‘illness’, and Prieur in 1988 due to pregnancy. Both were decorated militarily. The French president Francois Mitterand and Prime Minister Laurent Fabius were definitely briefed and probably approved the boat bombing operation, but they let their Defence Minister Charles Hernu carry the can and resign.

In 1988 I was posted to Paris as area manager. It was amazing to see how discussion in France of the Rainbow Warrior Affair mainly concerned questions of how the secret service operation had been bungled, rather than questions of culpability, attack on friendly allied territory, political responsibility and murder. French national pride had taken a serious blow. 

After ignoring international opinion for decades the French government finally ceased the atomic testing program at Mororura in January 1996. Lunch with their secret service agents really feels like another era.

Peter O’Hara was Qantas Manager French Polynesia based in Papeete from 1985 to 1987.


This entry was posted in Defence/Security, International Affairs. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to PETER O’HARA. My Lunch with French Secret Service Agents Who Sank Rainbow Warrior.

  1. Ann Tulloh says:

    Recently there was a programme on France Inter about the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. A trade agreement was made between NZ and France or NZ and the common market, I don’t remember, involving letting NZ products tax free here. What this means to me is that I can get fresh NZ legs of lambs under plastic at my local supermarket for less than 8€ per kilo.
    Sometimes they’re from Oz, same price, but I haven’t worked out why. Don’t the French know the difference?
    In all, very delicious.

  2. tasi timor says:

    ‘My Lunch…’

    Just as egregious was their sinking, soon after, of the Southern Raider at St Paul, on the direct orders of Chirac. The Australian owned and skippered boat had been taking crays [Panulirus Longipes] at St Paul and Amsterdam, nor was she the only Australian boat do to do. But that wasn’t why she was sunk. Chirac accused the skipper, a Vietnam vet, of being an Australian intelligence agent, having worked with the Mr Asia syndicate, smuggling guns to the Kanaks, and spying on Kerguelen, their alternative nuclear site. The Albatross, an ex German trawler, sunk her. The skipper was taken to Reunion and interrogated, and promised a quick release if he admitted he was an Australian agent.

    The skipper had once been in partnership with the Hon.Indonesian Consul in Darwin and had owned a boat called the Arundel, which they used to tender to an old oilfield in Maluku. After Tracy they salvaged the Konpira Maru, which was hired by the late K.Packer during the civil war in Timor to take a news crew to Dili. Allegedly, working out of Makassar, they towed smaller Indonesian boats for Mr Asia. The boat was later renamed the Timor Trader and sold to Mauritius. Another boat called the Southern Raider, a launch, had been detained in Cairns with guns bound for the Kanaks. One of the financiers was alleged to have been a corrupt former judge – ‘M.F.’

    Readers in WA can view photos of boat, crew and newly liberated French crays, while having lunch at Piccolos cafe in High Street Freo.

    ‘Le quotidien “Le Monde”, dans son édition du 1er novembre 1986, nous raconte une histoire des plus rocambolesque. “La Marine aurait confondu le Southern Raider avec un autre bateau du même nom, soupçonné de trafic d’armes au bénéfice des indépendantistes canaques. Le chalutier aurait été coulé volontairement, mais en s’apercevant de son erreur, la Marine aurait alors fait appel à un spécialiste de la DGSE venu à bord pour essayer d’arranger l’affaire à l’amiable”.

    Le quotidien régional “Le Journal de l’Ile de La Réunion” du 26 février 1987, soupçonne “un des membres d’équipage du Southern Raider d’être un agent secret autralien”. Le capitaine du Southern Raider et son second seront condamné, le 12 décembre, à 6 mois de prison ferme et 15000 francs d’amende. Peine perdu, les deux coquins, qui étaient pourtant sous le coup d’une mesure de contrôle judiciaire, avaient quitté l’île le mois précédent.’

    ‘..the prosecutor, Mr Lagarde, in recommending the maximum sentence against sailors, said Mr Chadderton was a “representative of a government which voted against France on the question of New Caledonia in the United Nations, and a [representative of a] country which contests the French presence in the Pacific and
    Indian Oceans.” ‘

Comments are closed.