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Remembering Rainbow Warrior: How French President Mitterrand Personally Approved the Attack on Greenpeace 20 Years Ago

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Image Credit: Greenpeace

Twenty years ago, the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior was bombed by French government agents and sunk in a harbor in Auckland, New Zealand. The French newspaper Le Monde recently revealed that the late French President Francois Mitterrand personally approved the sinking of the ship. We speak with David Robie, an independent journalist who was on board the ship and wrote the book “Eyes of Fire: The Last Voyage of the Rainbow Warrior.”

Last weekend, the French newspaper Le Monde revealed that the late French President Francois Mitterrand personally approved the sinking of the ship. The paper obtained a handwritten account of the operation written by the former head of France’s spy agency, Steve Lacoste. Lacoste describes his meeting with Mitterrand two months before the attack. At that meeting, he asked Mitterrand for permission to conduct the bombing. Lacoste wrote that Mitterrand “gave me his consent while emphasizing the importance he placed on the nuclear tests.”

Two members of the 13 person French secret service team that carried out the bombing were arrested two days later. Dominique Prieur and Alain Marfart were sentenced to ten years in prison but were extradited to French Polynesia, where they served less than three. Others who carried out the bombing have apparently escaped punishment. The man who coordinated the operation, Louis Pierre Dillais- a former lieutenant-colonel in the French Secret Service, is now living in Washington D.C and working for the giant Belgian Arms Maker FH Herstal. The company sells weapons to the United States Special Forces and to New Zealand’s defense forces.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the phone now from New Zealand by David Robie, an independent journalist who was on board the ship on its last journey and wrote Eyes of Fire: The Last Voyage of the Rainbow Warrior. A new updated edition of the book is being released this week. He’s also Associate Professor at Auckland University of Technology’s School of Communication Studies. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, David Robie.

DAVID ROBIE: Hello, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you respond to this latest news, the handwritten memo that describes the approval of the French President, Francois Mitterrand, for the blowing up of the ship?

DAVID ROBIE: Well, it’s been largely received in New Zealand with a certain amount of a 'ho-hum, well, we thought so all along.' Most of the reaction, certainly in New Zealand, is that, well, you know, it was no surprise. You know, people have more or less accepted for the best part of 20 years that although it was not, you know, absolutely certain before that Mitterrand had actually sort of authorized the attack, it’s been more or less accepted in New Zealand that that was probably the case. It’s just interesting that Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who was the Deputy Prime Minister in New Zealand at the time of the bombing said — his reaction when confronted with this news from Le Monde, he said it’s very disappointing, because one would not expect the president of a friendly nation to authorize an illegal act against the nation with whom you enjoy friendly relations and with whom you fought in two world wars. That seems to me to be rather extraordinary. So that was Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s reaction.

AMY GOODMAN: This past weekend, there was this memorial at the Rainbow Warrior. Can you talk about what happened, who was there, and also about the Greenpeace photographer who was killed?

DAVID ROBIE: Well, Fernando, he, in fact, had a cabin just very close — I was on board for something like ten weeks up until the time of the bombing, but I had actually left a couple of nights before, because after the Rainbow Warrior arrived in New Zealand, my home is actually in Auckland, so I had actually gone ashore. And it was good to get ashore for a while. And with — now, at the 20th anniversary, Marelle, Fernando’s daughter who was eight at the time that he died, she came out for the voyage of the new Rainbow Warrior, going up to Matauri Bay where the original ship was sunk to make a living reef. Well, Fernando’s daughter, Marelle, came up on this voyage. And it was a very moving — a very emotional time for her. It was be a opportunity to talk to crew members, and also she addressed the local Maori Iwi, the tribe, and to the Greenpeace people and many other peace supporters, and so on, that came up for the ceremony.

AMY GOODMAN: The mission of the Rainbow Warrior, can you talk about that and how it applies to what is happening today, David Robie?

DAVID ROBIE: Well, I mean, the irony today, I think, is that, you know, 20 years ago this was an act of state terrorism, yet the major powers of the era, the U.S., Britain, and so on, and even Australia, gave no reaction whatsoever to this extraordinary attack, you know, on a sovereign nation, a friendly, sovereign nation with 30 nations operating in the country as part of the attack. In this context of war on terror today, it seems extraordinary that, you know, that — you know, so little attention was given to it. And the legacy of the period of nuclear testing, although France subsequently stopped nuclear testing in 1996 when it signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, there’s still the unresolved problem of the Tahitians that were subjected to radioactive fallout during the period of atmospheric testing in French Polynesia. And another aspect, of course, with the Rainbow Warrior was that immediately prior to being bombed, it was actually on a voyage to the Marshall Islands, where it resettled a number of Rongelap islanders. In fact, the whole community on Rongelap Atoll were moved to another island. And the reason they did this was because they were subjected to nuclear radiation during the 1950s when the United States was doing atmospheric testing in the Marshall Islands.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to David Robie, who was on the last journey of the Eyes of Fire before it was blown up by the French government by French intelligence agents. Do you think President Francois Mitterrand should be charged for the explosion and for the death of the photographer?

DAVID ROBIE: Well, the fact is that, you know, there’s a lot of bitter, you know, sort of feeling left in New Zealand as a result of the fact that only two of those agents were arrested and, of course, they were sentenced to ten years for manslaughter for the death of Fernando Pereira, and also for willful damage to the Greenpeace ship. And, of course, what really happened was through a brokered trade deal and mediation from the United Nations at the time, France did apologize and it did pay over $13 million in compensation to the New Zealand government, but in return, New Zealand handed over these two agents to the French authorities, and they were whisked off to Hao Atoll in French Polynesia, which was the military base supporting the nuclear testing at Moruroa. Well, of course, Hao Atoll was rather something like a military Club Med, and both Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur only served there in exile for probably less than two years.

AMY GOODMAN: David Robie, we have to wrap up.

DAVID ROBIE: And then they were taken back to France as heroes.

AMY GOODMAN: But, we have to wrap up. And, of course, with Mitterrand dead, I mean, members of his administration but also the head of French intelligence, Louis Pierre Dillais, the former lieutenant colonel and French secret service, now living in Washington and working for the giant Belgian arms maker, FH Herstal, it’s interesting he’s selling weapons to, well, your own defense department, the New Zealand defense department, as well.

DAVID ROBIE: Absolutely, and many New Zealanders are aghast at that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you very much, David Robie, author of Eyes of Fire: The Last Voyage of the Rainbow Warrior.

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