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Ian Birchall


Over the rainbow

(October 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 80, October 1985, p. 10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

French secret service

AS THE French Socialist Party slides downhill towards electoral defeat, problems are accumulating for President Mitterrand. One of the biggest may prove to be the affair of the Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace ship blown up in Auckland harbour in July as it was preparing to monitor French nuclear tests at the Pacific island of Mururoa.

In the face of a flood of accusations that the French secret services (the DGSE) were involved, the French government set up a special enquiry under one Bernard Tricot, a long-time Gaullist who was deeply involved with the secret services at the time of the Algerian war. His report whitewashed everyone, and for a few days the affair seemed to have died down.

Then the newspaper Le Monde produced a report showing that no less than three separate teams of French secret service agents had been involved in the attack. In the face of these revelations the Socialist government are going to find it very hard to get off the hook. As many as possible of those involved will save their skins by looking for scapegoats. Defence Minister Hernu has been forced to resign. Mitterrand, a long-time survivor, will doubtless display clean hands.

The facts of the affair seem to be as follows. Firstly, two French secret service agents with false passports have been arrested in New Zealand, but the full case against them will not become public till their trial begins in November.

Secondly, a boat called the Ouvea (which has now conveniently disappeared) was also in the South Pacific at the time with three DGSE members on board. It is claimed they were simply there to observe Greenpeace activities. But all three of them came from France’s Training Centre for Combat Swimmers and all three were highly trained for underwater sabotage. It is unlikely that such people were merely looking through binoculars.

Who and why?

Thirdly, according to Le Monde, there were two frogmen who actually planted the bomb. Tricot’s report admits the presence of the first two groups of agents and says that the French secret services had official instructions to ‘anticipate’ Greenpeace action in relation to the Mururoa tests. While French officials insist that this meant no more than surveillance, the word is clearly ambiguous.

What remains unclear is who exactly gave the orders for the attack and, even more unclear, why they did so. The bombing seems to have had no obvious motive; the result has been mainly to give Greenpeace good publicity and to embarrass the French government.

The events do not cast great credit on the competence of the French secret service. So many clues point to French involvement that one observer has said that those responsible left everything ‘except a beret and a bottle of Beaujolais’.

As a result the French government seems to be caught in a cleft stick. If it accepts responsibility, it must take the rap; but if it denies any involvement then it seems to be admitting that it cannot control its own secret services.

Such an admission would be no surprise. Since coming to power Mitterrand has left the state machine well alone.

Nor would it be unprecedented for the French secret service to act independently of the government – especially one of the left.

In October 1956 leaders of the Algerian National Liberation Front were preparing to negotiate a possible peace with a French government led by Socialist Guy Mollet. But before negotiations could take place the Algerian leaders’ plane was diverted by French military intelligence and they were arrested. No talks took place and the war went on. Neither Mollet nor any member of his cabinet knew anything of the kidnapping in advance, but Mollet covered up for it. Mitterrand probably remembers the episode well; he should do – he was Minister of Justice at the time.

Another possibility is the involvement of the extreme right, trying to discredit the French government.

However, all is not lost for Mitterrand. He has two things going for him. One is the widespread anti-English feeling that simmers below the surface in France – and for the purposes of the argument Canadian Greenpeace supporters and the New Zealand government all count as ‘Anglo-Saxons’. Greenpeace is also widely alleged to have links with the British secret services.

The view that the attack on Greenpeace was a quite legitimate act of self-defence to protect France’s nuclear tests is one that has a great deal of currency.

Governments in trouble often turn to nationalism, and Mitterrand doubtless remembers what the Falklands did for Thatcher. While he is unlikely to send a task force to New Zealand, his style has been brazen.

He has expressed no regret at the death of the Greenpeace photographer killed in the explosion, and continues to insist that France will exclude foreign ships from the nuclear test zone. Indeed, he ordered the navy to protect the tests ‘by force if necessary’.

‘My country’

Secondly, there has been the role of the opposition. Six months before an election, the right has obviously taken the opportunity to embarrass the government and call for resignations. But among senior leaders of the right, the response has been remarkably restrained. Giscard d’Estaing’s sole comment has been ‘my country right or wrong’, and Chirac has told his followers to keep quiet about the affair because he does not want to put at risk the secret service or French nuclear policy. Raymond Barre has approved the government’s handling of the affair, saying: ‘We must defend France’s interests as a nuclear power and as a Pacific power.’

Whatever the exact degree of government complicity, the Rainbow Warrior incident has brought out the relation of the Socialist government to the French state. In terms of the secret service apparatus, nuclear policy and colonial interests, Mitterrand has accepted the framework inherited from his predecessors – indeed, he clearly recognises that he is powerless to change it.

Mitterrand has come a long way from the man who said in July 1973 that ‘the Socialist Party has always considered French nuclear tests to be useless and dangerous’. France has been testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific since the days of General de Gaulle in 1966.

The Socialist government resumed nuclear testing as early as November 1981 and Mitterrand has increased France’s fleet of nuclear submarines. France has still not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, now signed by some 130 states. Mitterrand has also gone back on his pre-election promise to cut back on France’s nuclear power programme, and France leads the world in fast-breeder reactors.

The French Communist Party has backed Mitterrand’s nuclear policy, and support for Mitterrand on the left has meant that France has been virtually alone in Western Europe in not developing a mass peace movement.

Doubtless there will be further cover ups, and the full truth may never emerge. But at least the world has had the spectacle of the revolting hypocrisy of a ‘socialist’ government which whimpers about terrorism, but stages nuclear tests and employs teams of trained naval saboteurs.

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Last updated: 16 October 2019