“Just Cover Your Eyes” – The Toll Of Decades Of Nuclear Tests In French Polynesia

More than 15 years after the end of French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, 720 people afflicted with cancer and other illnesses have sued France for compensation.

Nuclear testing in Mururoa atoll, 1970 (Point Zero Canopus)
Nuclear testing in Mururoa atoll, 1970 (Point Zero Canopus)
Christine Chaumeau

PAPEETE - Lucien Faara was a farmer on Tahaa Island, in French Polynesia. In 1968, he left his island for Mururoa atoll, where he hoped for a more stable income than his taro field was yielding. For eight years he worked as a laborer on the sites where the Pacific Experimentation Center (CEP) and the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) held 210 nuclear weapons tests between 1966 and 1996.

Farra died from bronchopulmonary cancer in 2004. Since 2005, his widow has been asking the courts to recognize her husband's sickness and death as a result of radioactive contamination. She brought her case to the compensation committee (Civen) created in 2010 to acknowledge and compensate French nuclear weapons testing victims, to no avail.

She is currently in the Papeete administrative court in Tahiti appealing against the Civen's decision to reject her compensation claim, along with six former workers and their beneficiaries who have suffered the same fate. It is their third and last judicial recourse. Previously, they had also lodged a claim in the Labor Court against the CEA, which they accused of not taking enough anti-contamination security measures.

A cancer epidemic

"I want to forget. But it is very difficult to see my colleagues die," says Robert Voirin, a former Mururoa worker. "They told us to put our hands on our eyes and to turn our backs on the mushroom," he adds. In 1998, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. On May 21, the Labor Court heard testimony on his medical case. The court will rule on July 16. "I'm not expecting much," admits Voirin. "I just want to know if there is a risk the sickness will be passed on to my children."

A civil court found the CEA guilty of causing Lucien Faara's death. That did not stop the atomic commission's lawyer, Franck Dremaux, from asserting that there was no link between the sickness and the nuclear tests- adding that nuclear testing, atoms and nuclear weapons were scary, but that such a controversy had no place in a courtroom.

Out of the 720 civilian and military cases presented to the Civen, only four have obtained compensation, ranging between 16,000 and 60,000 Euros. All of the Polynesian cases were rejected. "They are waiting for us to die one after the other so that there are fewer people to compensate," says a disillusioned Voirin. "It's humiliating," adds Roland Oldham, from Mururoa e Tatou, a defense association created by former workers.

The Civen justified rejecting the cases by qualifying the link between nuclear testing and pathologies as "insignificant."

The Mururoa e Tatou association wants a complete overhaul of the compensation system, and the Polynesian government has asked for a meeting with new French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Bruno Barrillot, who specializes in monitoring the nuclear testing fallout in French Polynesia, hasn't forgotten that new Justice Minister Christiane Taubira had submitted a law on this in 2009, just as Marie-Hélène Aubert, French president François Hollande's advisor had seven years earlier. It should also be noted that Mururoa e Tatou's banner was a gift from the Nantes' municipal council, led by Ayrault. During each hearing, it is unfurled in front of the Papeete court.

Read the article in French in Le Monde.

Photo - Point Zero Canopus

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!