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.