/ 8 July 2005

Spectre of Rainbow Warrior still haunts France

Twenty years after two of its secret agents blew up the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand, France is still haunted by the bombing of the Greenpeace vessel, which forever tarnished its image in the South Pacific.

The sinking of the 40m former trawler in Auckland harbour on the night of July 10, 1985 still ranks as one of the biggest political and diplomatic scandals of the reign of the late president Francois Mitterrand.

The explosion inadvertently killed a Portuguese photographer on board the ship and earned France a reputation as an arrogant nuclear power prepared to go to any lengths to defend its interests.

”The death of the photographer, Fernando Pereira, was the gravest failure of the operation. His death continues to weigh on me,” said the head of France’s DGSE foreign intelligence service at the time, Pierre Lacoste.

Lacoste, today aged 81, was in charge of Operation Satanic, which was aimed at neutralising the Rainbow Warrior, which was to participate in protests against French nuclear testing on the Pacific atoll of Muraroa.

The former DGSE chief now says that the operation — which involved the planting of two mines aboard the Greenpeace ship — was organised too hastily and was ”far too complicated for us not to end up with any victims”.

”The fact that the operation failed, and that it sparked such a scandal in a country like New Zealand, shows that the operation was indeed a bad solution to the problem,” Lacoste admitted.

An inquiry by New Zealand police quickly led to the arrest of two French secret agents, Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur.

Subsequent exposes in the press revealed the extent of France’s involvement in the incident.

Paris initially denied any responsibility for the bombing, and an administrative inquiry exonerated both the government and the DGSE.

Two months later, in a spectacular turn of events, then Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius revealed the ”cruel truth”.

”DGSE agents were responsible for the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior” and ”they acted on orders”, Fabius said, adding that the government had hidden the truth from investigators.

Mitterrand’s government was rocked by the scandal — defence minister Charles Hernu was forced to resign, Lacoste was replaced, and the two agents were sentenced to 10 years in a New Zealand prison on manslaughter charges.

After tough negotiations with New Zealand, the pair was later transferred to a French base in the South Pacific, before being repatriated in 1988. No-one else was ever convicted in connection with the bombing.

France paid $7-miilion in compensation to New Zealand, and $8-million to Greenpeace, a sum which allowed the environmental pressure group to fit out the Rainbow Warrior II.

The new Greenpeace ship planned to lead a new round of protests when French nuclear testing resumed in 1995, but this time around, the French navy — under close watch by the world’s media — kept protestors out of the testing zone.

In 1996, one year after French President Jacques Chirac took office, Paris ended its nuclear testing programme in the Pacific, which had long soured its relations with New Zealand, Australia and other Pacific nations.

Since then, France has worked hard to regain its standing with its Pacific partners, but there is still work to be done.

One question remains: exactly how much did Mitterrand know about Operation Satanic, and did he give the DGSE the green light to bomb the Rainbow Warrior?

Lacoste says yes.

”A few days later, in July 1985, after the ‘accident’ and the arrests [of the two agents], a close aide to Francois Mitterrand told me, ‘The president told me that if it went poorly, Hernu would go and Lacoste would go.’

”He didn’t have any illusions about what was going on.” – Sapa-AFP