Accelerated opening of France’s National Archives on the French nuclear tests in French Polynesia

/ FranceFrench Polynesia

In a speech given in Papeete on July 27, 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron recognized France’s “debt” to French Polynesia for the nuclear tests conducted from 1966 to 1996 in the South-East Pacific. On this occasion, he announced that it was now important to open up access to documents concerning nuclear tests and that restrictions on access should only apply to documents containing so-called proliferation information, i.e., information that could facilitate the construction of a nuclear device.

While article L. 213-1 of the French Heritage Code stipulates that public archives may be communicated, article L. 213-2, in its title I, applies a regime of communicability of 50 years to documents protected by the secrecy of National Defense and extends this period when these documents concern military installations, war materials, intelligence services and nuclear deterrence. It should also be noted that certain documents may also be subject to 75-year and 100-year time limits. In addition, Title II of the same article provides for a regime of permanent incommunicability for certain documents “the communication of which is likely to lead to the dissemination of information that would make it possible to design, manufacture, use or locate nuclear, radiological, biological or chemical weapons or any other weapons with direct or indirect destructive effects of an analogous level”. Documents falling into the latter category cannot be the subject of requests for early access by way of derogation, under the Heritage Code.

Four months earlier, in March 2021, an independent investigation was published under the title Toxique —Enquête sur les essais nucléaires français en Polynésie (Toxic —Investigation into the French nuclear tests in Polynesia), by Sébastien PHILIPPE and Tomas STATIUS[1]. A website Moruroa Files has been dedicated to it and publishes the 233 declassified documents.

A French leading newspaper, Le Monde, wrote, “It all started with [this] book.”[2] On July 1 and 2, 2021, a round table was organized in Paris, in the presence of the President of the Republic and the President of French Polynesia, accompanied by the delegation Reko tika (“the right word, truth and justice” in Tuamotu language), notably composed of parliamentarians, deputies and representatives of civil society (two largest victims’ associations in French Polynesia, Moruroa e tatou and Association 193, as well as an Polynesia-elected independentist member of French National Assembly, Moetai Brotherson, boycotted the round table). The delegation expressed their wish to access historical archives, which are classified as proliferation information, and the establishment of simplified procedures, in order to allow an objective and detailed account of the history of the Pacific test sites, and thus communicate and share these memories.

Following this announcement, the Commission for the Opening of the Archives of the Nuclear Tests in French Polynesia was set up on Oct. 5 by the Secretary of State to the Minister of the Armed Forces, Geneviève Darrieussecq. French Polynesia is represented by the head of the Polynesian delegation for the follow-up of the consequences of the nuclear tests (DSCEN), Yolande Vernaudon, and by educational inspector, Yvette Tommasini, who is in charge of an education project about the tests jointly led by the Polynesian Ministry of Education and the Vice-Rectorate of French Polynesia. The Minister Delegate said, “The archives are no longer classified as a matter of principle. On the contrary, they are made available on principle.”

Two principal objectives of this commission are:

  • to proceed with a declassification undertaking on an unprecedented scale, thanks to the renewal of the legislative and regulatory framework of the general regime of communication of archives in France, stipulating that communicability is “the basic principle, except for when provided for by law.”
  • to guarantee the transparency of this procedure by involving representatives of the Polynesian population.

According to the Interministerial Committee for the Archives of France (CIAF)[3], after four months of piece-by-piece analysis, carried out by different administrations and State archive services, this meeting was the occasion to present a first progress report to Édouard Fritch, President of French Polynesia.

The commission announced the declassification of 34,598 documents, 433 photos and 43 films. Under the new legislative framework, 90% of the documents examined have been approved for free communication. The documents are now accessible to all.

A page dedicated to the nuclear tests was opened on Nov. 24, 2021 on the Mémoire des hommes website (, which makes it possible to follow the progress of document disclosure in the various services concerned and to learn about existing documentary resources.

The commission will meet in plenary session every quarter. The next meeting will probably take place in January 2022. It also meets every week, in a restricted form with archive teams and nuclear specialists, in order to proceed with the expertise of the documents.

A total of 9,144 items remain to be studied, in order to assign them to or remove them from the scope of the new categories. This represents between 1 and 1.5 kilometers of archives.

[1] Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. See also Philippe, Sébastien, Sonya Schoenberger, and Nabil Ahmed. 2021. “Radiation Exposures and Compensation of Victims of French Atmospheric Nuclear Tests in Polynesia.” arXiv preprint arXiv:2103.06128.

[2] «Une table ronde sur le nucléaire pour déminer les relations entre la France et la Polynésie», Le Monde, le 03 juillet 2021.  

[3] Comité interministériel aux archives de France, « Compte rendu, Séance en date du 20 octobre 2021».

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