The nuclear stubbornness of the French leaders in independent Algeria

The highest French officials, including the President of the Republic Charles de Gaulle, considered conducting atmospheric nuclear tests in the Algerian Sahara after the independence of the former colony in 1962. These projects, described in recently published documents, have never been available to the public. . has been completed. Otherwise, they would have contradicted the will expressed by the first Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella and his government on several occasions, against atmospheric nuclear tests in their country and in the world.

Publication of the book Poisonous (2021), by physicist Sébastien Phillipe and investigative journalist Tomas Statius, recently highlighted the health and environmental risks arising from the development of the French nuclear arsenal. Their analyzes revealed that the extent of radioactive contamination in Polynesia, where France carried out nearly two hundred atmospheric and underground nuclear explosions between 1966 and 1996, had been much greater than the authorities had admitted.

Read more: Good magazines: “Bombs in Polynesia”

These revelations, as well as the holding of a round table gathering members of Polynesian civil society, had led to the opening of an unprecedented process of declassification of French archives, following President Emmanuel Macron’s decision. The importance of victims’ right to compensation, a right established by the French Parliament since 2010, raises questions of secrecy – especially nuclear – in democracy.

Released in May by Bombs in Polynesia, a commission from the government of French Polynesia led by historians Renaud Meltz and Alexis Vrignon, is extending public attention to the Pacific. Although most of the recent French declassifications also concern Polynesia, some documents make it possible to question the nuclear dimensions of Algerian independence during its 60 years of existence.e anniversary.

The Algerian Sahara, the first French test site

Between 1960 and 1966, France carried out its first nuclear test explosions in the Sahara Desert, 17 in total, including 4 in the atmosphere. These nuclear issues interacted with the War of Independence (1954-62), as historian Roxanne Panchasi explains, then with the construction of the new Algerian state. The French explosions in Algeria are now the subject of literary, architectural and militant works.

Four air tests took place at the Reggane site before France switched to underground tests at the In Ekker site from 1961. These underground tests, designed to prevent the escape of radioactive fallout produced by the explosion, will not always achieve this goal. Four underground tests in the Algerian Sahara “have not been completely enclosed or confined”.

The Evian Agreement, which guaranteed a ceasefire in Algeria in 1962, guaranteed France the right to use the two nuclear facilities for five years. At least according to the French interpretation: several Algerian decision-makers disputed that. This document did not contain any provision prohibiting the resumption of air tests in Algerian territory. But in fact, France did not take them back until 1966 in Polynesia.

The weaving of bilateral relations that started with the Evian negotiations enabled the leaders of the new Algerian state to contest the most damaging French nuclear projects.

French contagions and African borders

The French choice to proceed to underground tests, from December 1961, was not final. Why was a return to the atmosphere worrying? After the first French explosion in 1960, radioactive fallout, much to the surprise of France and its allies, arrived over independent Ghana Kwame Nkrumah and Nigeria, a British colony on the verge of gaining independence.

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These two governments, which historians Abena Dove Osseo-Asare and Christopher Hill have explained separately, had worked hard to measure the traces left by French radioactive clouds on their territory. Other neighboring states, such as Tunisia, had approached the International Atomic Energy Agency (AEIA) and then the United States to participate in these measures as well. They were looking for scientific evidence of French violations of their sovereignty.

But despite these challenges, several senior French officials, including Charles de Gaulle, wanted to retain the opportunity to perform tests at the Reggane site. At the end of 1961, the military authorities refused to change the air traffic rules over the site, preferring to keep those introduced during the tests, on the grounds that at that time “it was not possible to predict the characteristics of experiments that could be performed by Reggane ”.

1960: The French atomic bomb is “without danger” to the Sahara (Archive INA).

In May 1963, the first Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella began to become impatient with France’s refusal to cease its nuclear activities in Algeria. For Ben Bella, it is about the legitimacy of his national mandate and his foreign policy, both of which are based on his autonomy vis-à-vis Paris. He turned to Jean de Broglie, Foreign Minister for Algerian Affairs, and asked him if France could speed up its withdrawal from the Reggane site, as it no longer needed it. De Broglie refuses to commit: “investigations” would still have to be carried out to determine whether it is really possible to speed up this withdrawal.

Ahmed Ben Bella will make the same request at least twice in 1963 to the French Ambassador to Algeria, Georges Gorse, who will confirm to him the French will to keep this site for a few more years. The French choice to retain the Reggane area and the possibility of a resumption of air tests seriously worried the Algerian president, who strongly supported the Moscow Treaty banning nuclear testing (1963), which France did not sign. .

A fifth atmospheric shot? The French desire to reactivate Reggane

Several documents from the declassified archives make it possible to claim that despite Algerian protests, French leaders were probably preparing to carry out a new atmospheric test at the Reggane site during the year 1964.

In the spring of 1963, General Jean Thiry, in charge of the French nuclear test sites from 1963 to 1969, called for “the currently planned reopening of the Hammoudia polygon for air shelling in 1964”, which designated the firing zone next to Reggane. Thiry and other senior French military officers were concerned about France’s ability to carry out underground tests following the famous Béryl accident in 1962. Radioactive leaks from the poorly contained shot had contaminated Ministers Pierre Messmer and Gaston Palewski, French soldiers and Algerian residents.

Thiry was not the only one talking about it. In March 1963, Brigadier General Plenier from the engineers called for “the resumption of experiments with protection during an air strike planned for the beginning of 1964”. If he knows that “this shot is planned”, he notes that his work “depends on data not yet determined on the conditions of the shot”, such as location or height. On March 29, 1963, it was the turn of the General Labouerie Division, Inspector of Engineering, to rejoice: “It could be that favorable conditions have been met in connection with the air explosion planned for 1964.” Thus, at least three soldiers were at. the heart of the French nuclear program waited impatiently for the reactivation of the Reggane area.

An explosion in the Hoggar massif in March 1963, either Emerald (March 18) or Amethyst (March 30).
ECA / ECPAD / Defense / F63-115 RC18

Report available on Images Défense

There will eventually be no trial in 1964. During his meeting with Charles de Gaulle at the Château de Champs-sur-Marne, in May 1964, Ahmed Ben Bella had asked the French president not to resume atmospheric testing if possible. De Gaulle had refused to provide this guarantee. In late 1964, he was still discussing with his advisers the possibility of conducting atmospheric shelling at the Reggane site, and he became impatient with the commissioning of the Pacific Experimentation Center in Polynesia.

If Ahmed Ben Bella’s request was finally granted, a senior official from the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), Jean Viard, nevertheless conducted a study in December 1966 on the possibility of reactivating the site – an option he did not consider optimal. Charles de Gaulle, however, would still have liked to keep the place. In a note to the members of his cabinet in February 1967, he asked to explore the possibility of maintaining a French presence in Reggane, a place that could only be used without much work for atmospheric tests.

The nuclear archive and Algerian independence

Nothing ensured the absence of atmospheric nuclear test explosions in independent Algeria. Recent declassifications reveal French studies for their cure, despite protests from the highest levels of the new Algerian state. Always shrouded in secrecy, decision-making continued until the French transfer of the two Sahara sites to the Algerian authorities in 1966 and 1967.

Some archives, including military and diplomatic means from the time, remain inaccessible to historical research. Glimt suggests the significance of this episode, of the projects abandoned during bilateral negotiations, for the French military nuclear program, for the new Algerian state and for the relationship between these two countries. The new access to the French nuclear archives begins, despite its shortcomings, to shed light on the little-known problems of the 1960s.e the anniversary of Algeria’s independence.

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