French President Emmanuel Macron promised transparency around decades of nuclear tests in French Polynesia and changes to compensation procedures on Tuesday when he stopped to talk to a group of protesters on his first official trip to the territory.
Macron, who began his visit on Saturday, has previously signalled he will address the legacy of French testing in the South Pacific islands, which remains a source of deep resentment and is seen as evidence of racist colonial attitudes that disregarded the lives of locals.
Residents in the sprawling archipelago of more than 100 islands located midway between Mexico and Australia are hoping Macron apologises and announces compensation for radiation victims.
“I can’t ask you to trust me when you have been lied to for so long by not being given all the information,” Macron told a group of around 50 protesters on the island of Moorea.
“I think that confidence has to be built, by telling all, by sharing everything, by being a lot more transparent, and it’s true we haven’t done that so far,” he added.
Lena Lenormand, vice president of the 193 association, which is named for the number of tests carried out in the semi-autonomous territory, said islanders wanted urgent action.
“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?” she told Macron.
“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.”
In response, Macron said he was “committed to changing things” regarding compensation.
“I’ve heard you, and I’ve heard what you are asking of me, and you will see my response.”
The president was expected to address the issue in a speech later.
At the beginning of the trip, a presidential official who asked not to be named said Macron will be “encouraging several concrete steps” regarding the legacy of nuclear tests, with the opening up of state archives and individual compensation.
The tests were conducted from 1966 to 1996 as France developed nuclear weapons.
Officials denied any cover-up of radiation exposure earlier this month after French investigative website Disclose reported in March that the impact from the fallout was far more extensive than authorities had acknowledged, citing declassified French military documents.
Only 63 Polynesian civilians have been compensated for radiation exposure since the tests ended in 1996, Disclose said, estimating that more than 100,000 people may have been contaminated in total, with leukaemia, lymphoma and other cancers rife.