France’s Atomic Legacy in Algeria

France has yet to sufficiently address the fallout from its botched nuclear testing in a former colony

France’s Atomic Legacy in Algeria
A set of dummies propped up in the Sahara Desert awaiting a third atomic bomb explosion during the French nuclear testing/December 1960/ Keystone/Getty Images

In early February 2021, strong winds swept Saharan sands from southern Algeria into the Mediterranean Sea. Shortly afterward, the sandstorm reached parts of Europe, where it imposed an eerie orange sky.

What proved even less normal about the sandstorm, as media reports showed, was that it bore unusually high levels of radiation. The winds had carried contaminated sands from the Algerian desert — where France had administered nuclear tests during and after colonization — and exacerbated an ongoing debate on colonial trauma and Algeria’s current relations with France.

Algerian and French media alike took to covering the sandstorm in light of the current diplomatic rift between France and its former colony. After the invasion of Algiers in 1830, France ruled over Algeria for over a century, and much of the archive that covers the era remains under the sway of the Élysée (the official residence of the French president). Algeria still demands reparations and, among other things, access to war archives (which include, inter alia, the true number of nuclear tests and the coordinates of their locations). France is moving in that direction, albeit slowly and with some about-faces.

During a visit to Algiers amid his presidential campaign in 2017, Emmanuel Macron was bold, particularly for a presidential candidate, for making the historic yet self-evident declaration that French colonialism was “a crime against humanity.” Macron termed the trip “a visit of friendship and work,” and he also came clean about the French army’s torturing and killing of independence activists and fighters during the Algerian war, such as Maurice Audin. The future president promised a new dawn in France’s relations with Algeria.

Last March, Macron appeared to make good on that promise, at least partially, when he announced a further declassification of war archives, which for decades had been among Algeria’s top demands. However, the Élysée failed to declassify files pertaining to the French nuclear tests in the Algerian desert. The decision came shortly after the release of a polemical report, which critics saw as a one-sided effort indulging in colonial rationale. Macron himself had called for the report in hopes of providing a breakthrough in French-Algerian diplomacy by acknowledging some of France’s atrocities. Benjamin Stora, the French author of the report, was asked why his report only focused on the period between 1954 and 1962 and not on the entire period of French colonialism in Algeria, from 1830-1962. His response was honest: “This book is not about colonization.” While the report put forward a list of proposals, such as creating a “Memories and Truth Commission” and converting internment camps into memorial sites, along with about 30 other measures, it explicitly opposed an official apology for colonization.

On Feb. 13, 1960, at 7:04 a.m., France detonated its first atomic bomb, named Gerboise Bleue, in Reggane, southern Algeria. The bomb released over four times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb. A second bomb, Gerboise Blanche, was set off a few months later on April 1; that same day, Nikita Khrushchev, then the Soviet Union’s leader, was on an official visit in France.

To the Soviet Union, the United States, and Britain, which for over a decade had demonstrated their nuclear capacities, French President Charles de Gaulle’s message was clear: France was at long last ready to join the top table of military powers.

In 1945, merely a few weeks after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, de Gaulle, then still a general in the French army, created the French Atomic Energy Commission, which he kept secret from the French Parliament until 1958, when he was elected president of the French Fifth Republic. Upon taking office, de Gaulle made it a top priority to pursue France’s nuclear aspirations, and the commission delivered the country’s first atomic bomb 15 years after its creation. Even in the shadow of a nuclear holocaust and in the midst of the Algerian War (1954-1962), France remained hellbent on becoming the world’s next nuclear power. This came as a surprise to the Soviets, the Americans, and the British, each of them having tested bombs earlier.

De Gaulle believed his nation lagged behind other world powers in terms of energy and military capacity in the aftermath of World War II and ramped up the creation of the Centre saharien d’expérimentations militaires (CSEM), where a settlement emerged around the experimentation center in Reggane. Over 40,000 locals were said to be living in the area near the center when both the French military and civilians arrived in great numbers.

To date, France hasn’t disclosed the real toll of contamination.

According to the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, over 24,000 people who had been close to the first explosion were exposed to its radiation. To date, France hasn’t disclosed the real toll of contamination, nor has it revealed the location coordinates of all testing sites and nuclear waste, which it dispersed in different areas or merely buried a few feet underground. (It wasn’t until 2007, for example, that France provided Algeria with maps of minefields it had planted across the country during the war, even as a number of Algerian civilians, including children, had died or were gravely injured in mine explosions.)

The nuclear tests — the number of which is also yet to be confirmed — were conducted with such negligence that the operatives were dubbed “les apprentis sorciers,” (the sorcerers’ apprentices). Many of them were untrained and at the moment of detonation didn’t even wear protective gear. Families in France still take their cases to court, demanding accountability for the husbands and fathers who fell victim to France’s frenzied pursuit of nuclear power status. Many of those operators were even deprived of their medical records, which contained details of their contamination and which France deemed too damning to be made public.

The other tests, in Ekker and elsewhere in southern Algeria, weren’t any better and took just as heavy a toll on the operators, to say nothing of the locals, who were mostly laborers and worked the fields. Mostly Arabic speakers without French language skills, they probably didn’t even realize what was taking place in front of them.

According to accounts from personnel from the experimentation centers, the French military in Reggane used the locals near ground zero as guinea pigs by distributing dosimeters on the pretext that those tools helped decontaminate them, while others were invited to queue in front of “decontamination tanks,” which were also used to survey the locals’ levels of radiation exposure.

Over the years, studies showed that populations living near the testing sites continued to suffer aftereffects from those experiments, such as birth defects and serious illnesses passed down through generations, in addition to many types of cancer. Moreover, those aftereffects were not limited to people; water, on which nomads heavily rely while crossing the Sahara, as well as livestock and wildlife were heavily affected by radiation, too.

Nor were the radioactive effects limited to the Algerian desert or Algeria as a whole.

In 2014, the French newspaper Le Parisien published documents revealing that much larger areas than what the Élysée had always claimed had been exposed to radioactive effects, both in the Algerian Sahara and the Pacific Ocean, where France conducted an even greater number of nuclear tests. For instance, the radiation from the Gerboise Bleue alone covered an area stretching from Algeria to Libya and Mauritania in the north, as well as Mali and Nigeria in the south. Even parts of Spain and Italy recorded high levels of radiation about two weeks following the first test.

Officially, France carried out a total of 17 nuclear tests in Algeria, the last of which occurred on Feb. 16, 1966, almost four years after Algeria gained independence on July 5, 1962. Those post-independence tests were secretly allowed under the treaty of the Evian Accords, signed in 1962 by the Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria, the National Liberation Front, and France. Later, however, evidence emerged that nuclear and biochemical tests had been taking place in Algeria until 1978, under another covert agreement between de Gaulle and Algerian President Houari Boumediene, who came to power in 1965.

In 1997, the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur shocked the public when it published an investigation that debunked French (and Algerian) official claims that the nuclear tests ended in 1966, as initially agreed upon. The magazine assessed that all four experimentation centers (in Reggane, In Ekker, Colomb-Béchard and Hammaguir) were only closed in 1978, the same year Boumediene died under vague circumstances. This meant that the French army had conducted more than the 17 publicly disclosed nuclear experiments in southern Algeria.

The investigation published by Le Nouvel Observateur thus exposed two governmental falsehoods at once: that the Evian Accords permitted further covert nuclear experiments (under the condition that these tests be carried out in underground stations) and that Boumediene, who was publicly zealous in his aversion to France, granted the French army, in total secrecy, wide liberties in the Algerian desert.

Yet the magazine happened to miss two other key points.

During the 1960s, the French navy still controlled the Mers El-Kébir naval base in Oran (western Algeria), and Boumediene, who was cautious about his public stature, not least after taking the country’s reins by virtue of a military coup, was bothered by the French presence there. In fact, the Evian Accords had also secretly granted France full authority over Mers El-Kébir, one of the Mediterranean’s most important naval bases, until 1977. In exchange for leaving Mers El-Kébir earlier than that date, the French army received an extension of the period of experimentation in the desert.

The second point, as Rachid Benyelles, a retired Algerian general who presided over Mers El-Kébir for years after its evacuation, later disclosed in his memoirs (“Dans les arcanes du pouvoir”), is that those experiments — including biochemical and bacteriological ones — were not discontinued until the mid-1980s, almost a decade following the death of Boumediene. The allegation that they had been discontinued in 1978 was merely linked to the death of Boumediene.

Such accounts only add to the multilayered fabrications that both governments held for years. And it is the same proclivity for vagueness and deceit that still strains today’s relations between the two countries, as well as their relations with the public. Despite Macron’s vows, France’s reluctance to reconcile its colonial rule in the North African country endures.

While Macron assigned Stora to retrace the history of this period, his Algerian counterpart, President Tebboune, nominated Abdelmadjid Chikhi. The two historians were to collaborate on “reconciling divergent memories”; yet even their encounter resulted in an abrupt collision. While Stora’s report was viewed as too indulgent on colonialism, Chikhi’s endeavor proved patchy. “How can we work on our history if most of it is still enclosed in France?” he questioned on live television.

Compared to his predecessors, Macron and his government have made the biggest strides toward reconciliation so far: coming clean about torture, calling colonialism what it really is, returning historical artifacts belonging to Algeria, and, most recently, issuing an order to declassify parts of secret archives. Yet time and again, France won’t provide reparations or, even less, a formal apology. It seems as though France would rather forget about that period entirely.

During Macron’s visit to Algiers in 2017, he was confronted by an Algerian bystander who cried amid the crowd: “France must come to terms with its colonial past in Algeria.” Macron replied, “But you have never known colonization. Why are you bothering me with that?” In the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, Macron faced similar questions and replied just in kind, objecting that those people hadn’t lived under colonization. Far from showing compassion, Macron’s flippant response reveals much about France’s failure to reckon with its colonial legacy.

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