France-Algeria: the nuclear test controversy

Algeria considers that France should "decontaminate" the nuclear test sites, active between 1960 and 1966, in the Algerian Sahara
Combinación de Imágenes del presidente de Francia, Emmanuel Macron y el presidente de Argelia, Abdelmadjid Tebboune PHOTO/AFP

PHOTO/AFP  -   Combination of images of French President Emmanuel Macron and Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.

At exactly 7:04 a.m., an intense flash of light streaked across the Saharan sky: France exploded its first atomic bomb in the Algerian desert, at least three to four times more powerful than the one detonated in Hiroshima in 1945. With the "blue gerbil" test, Paris has just joined the very close club of nuclear powers, joining the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. 

The French conducted four aerial nuclear tests at Reggane between 1960 and 1961, and thirteen more underground tests in an area known as In Ecker between 1961 and 1966, even though the Algerians had already been recognised as a sovereign country. By February 1966, no fewer than sixteen atmospheric and underground explosions took place in the Reggane region and in the caves of the Hoggar massif in In-Ekker. Algeria's independence changed nothing: a clause in the Evian agreements, signed in March 1962 between the French authorities and the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA), authorised Paris to continue its activities. The obligation to monitor the health of local populations and to decontaminate the environment was not negotiated.

El primer ministro francés, Jean Castex AFP/LUDOVIC MARIN
AFP/LUDOVIC MARIN-French Prime Minister Jean Castex

The responsibilities of the French nuclear tests in the Sahara, hitherto confined to a certain diplomatic discretion between the countries, are gradually taking their rightful place in bilateral Franco-Algerian relations. The visit to Algiers on 8 April of the French army chief of staff, François Lecointre, was an opportunity for the Algerians to publicly "request" Paris's "support" for the "rehabilitation" of the Reggane and In-Ekker sites, where France conducted seventeen nuclear tests between 1960 and 1966, i.e. before and after Algeria's independence in 1962. The dispute over the health and environmental fallout from this former atomic site has continued to fuel the unease of memory on both sides of the Mediterranean. 

As Paris and Algiers try to untangle their commemorative disputes, the issue is raised again in a report published on Saturday 29 August by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Entitled "Under the Sand, Radioactivity! "and written by two French experts, Patrice Bouveret and Jean-Marie Collin, the study makes an inventory of abandoned waste and calls on France to come out of its inaction.

El ministro francés de Asuntos Europeos, Clement Beaune REUTERS/BENOIT TESSIER
REUTERS/BENOIT TESSIER-French Minister for European Affairs, Clement Beaune

Under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the countries concerned are effectively obliged to "provide assistance to the victims of the use or testing of nuclear weapons or to work for the clean-up of the environment in contaminated areas". France, like other nuclear powers, has refused to ratify this text adopted by the UN in 2017. "But does this prevent it from providing humanitarian and technical assistance to Algeria," asks ICAN.

The head of the Algerian army, Said Chengriha, and his French counterpart, General François Lecointre, discussed in Algiers on 8 April the question of the nuclear tests carried out by France in the Sahara 60 years ago. This visit was not announced in the official agendas. But it took place, unlike the Franco-Algerian intergovernmental commission, which should have been held by Prime Minister Jean Castex in Algiers on 11 April, but was postponed at the last minute. The meeting, at which Castex was scheduled to chair the high-level intergovernmental committee on bilateral economic cooperation with his Algerian counterpart, Abdelaziz Djerad, was postponed "without a date" on the grounds, according to French sources, of the health crisis.

El presidente de Francia, Emmanuel Macron, y el jefe del Estado Mayor de los ejércitos franceses, el general Francois Lecointre REUTERS/CHRISTOPHE ENA
REUTERS/CHRISTOPHE ENA-French President Emmanuel Macron and the Chief of Staff of the French Armed Forces, General Francois Lecointre, have met with the French army's chief of staff, General Francois Lecointre.

There were many topics to be discussed by the two chiefs of staff. Terrorism in the Sahel, the situation in Libya and Western Sahara were not the least of the hot topics. But while a spokesman for the French General Staff contented himself with talking about the "potential" of bilateral military cooperation, it was the long-standing nuclear issue that the Algerian side publicly put on the table. According to the Algerian press, this very issue should also have been on the agenda. 

"I would like to raise the issue of negotiations, within the Algerian-French group, on the former nuclear test sites and other tests in the Algerian Sahara, where we expect your support, during the 17th session of the Algerian-French mixed group, scheduled for May 2021," said Chengriha. "Algeria considers that the security and stability of its neighbours are directly linked to its own security. That is why my country is making enormous efforts through the adaptation of military arrangements along the borders, with a view to achieving stability in the countries of the Mediterranean area," underlined Chengriha, who expressed concern about the presence of jihadist groups in the Sahel. "Aware of the extent of the danger that terrorism poses to territorial security and stability, Algeria has not hesitated to present initiatives and offer its assistance to its neighbours to coordinate efforts on the basis of a shared vision," he concluded.

El general argelino Said Chengriha  AP/FATEH GUIDOUM
AP/FATEH GUIDOUM-The head of the Algerian army, Said Chengriha

Algerian Labour Minister El Hachemi Djaâboub called France, a former colonial power, a "traditional and eternal enemy" of Algeria, during a question time in the Senate on Thursday (8 April), reports news website TSA.  This is all the more surprising given that Franco-Algerian relations have recently relaxed. "We have no problem with France at the moment," Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune himself declared on 2 April, when asked about French historian Benjamin Stora's report aimed at reconciling memories between France and Algeria. The Algerian president described bilateral relations as "good". For the French Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune, these remarks need not lead to the withdrawal of the French ambassador to Algeria. "No, I don't think so," he said when asked about that possibility. "We have to calm all this down," he added. 

Clément Beaune also denied any "tension" between France and Algeria over Jean-Castex's visit, which was officially cancelled because of the COVID-19 crisis, but above all because the Algerians complained that the French delegation had been reduced to a minimum. "The fact that this high-level meeting between the two governments could not take place is not related to tension between France and Algeria, but to the health situation, which has not allowed the French government to travel en masse to Algeria," he said. In the midst of a health crisis, "we cannot imagine that the French authorities are moving as if nothing is happening, in very large numbers," the secretary of state said. "It would not be responsible in terms of image and substance," he added. "We have collectively preferred to postpone this meeting, which will take place in a few months' time," he continued.