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Last Updated: Friday, 8 July, 2005, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
French expat recalls NZ bombing
By Henri Astier
BBC News

Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour after the bombing - 1985
France wanted to stop Greenpeace's campaign against nuclear testing
On a cold winter morning in July 1985, I walked into the French embassy in New Zealand to catch up with the news from home.

I got there early, hoping to beat fellow French expats to the week-old newspaper that had just arrived.

But no-one cared about Le Monde on that Thursday. For once, the Wellington embassy was abuzz with local news.

Someone had blown up a Greenpeace ship in Auckland overnight, killing a photographer.

"The radio ran interviews this morning, and they're all blaming the French!" said a young diplomat.

Opposition to nuclear tests in the Pacific was running high in New Zealand.

We were reading reports of anti-French hysteria, as if the tricolour was being torched from Invercargill to Auckland
As a French teacher doing my national service, I knew many students and had more than once observed their sometimes paranoid ideas.

"There they go again!" I said. "As if France would ever do such a terrible thing."

But one member of our group was not sure. "It would not surprise me all that much," the military attaché said, shaking his head.

Communication breakdown

The attaché, of course, had no inside knowledge - spies rarely involve diplomats in bomb plots.

He just knew more about our masters' mindset than we youngsters did.

Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart
Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart posed as Swiss tourists
It turned out that the New Zealanders had something to be paranoid about.

By mid-September, after weeks of denial by Paris, a man and a woman arrested in connection with the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior were exposed as French spies.

Commander Alain Mafart and Captain Dominique Prieur were on an official mission to stop Greenpeace snooping around nuclear test sites.

Over the next few months, French papers brought us - with their usual lateness - distant echoes of the political storm raging back home.

The communication problems, it seemed, ran the other way as well.

The French media seemed to understand little about what was happening in New Zealand.

We were reading reports of anti-French hysteria, as if the tricolour was being torched from Invercargill to Auckland and expats were in fear of their lives.

Reduced to silence

When I heard that a prominent reporter was in town, I tracked her down to introduce her to my students to start a dialogue and dispel misunderstandings.

I was desperate to show her that Kiwis were such nice people. Strongly as they felt about government policies, they would never vent their anger on individuals.

I caught up with the reporter and hauled her into my classroom. But the exercise did little good.

She inveighed about the continued detention of Mafart and Prieur and the rampant Francophobia she had witnessed. My mild-mannered students were not able to get a word in.

Not all French reporters, however, wore nationalist blinkers. The involvement of French external security services in the Rainbow Warrior bombing was exposed by journalistic sleuths in Paris.

I had a chance to meet France's answer to Bob Woodward - Jean-Marie Pontaut of L'Express, who did more than any other to break the story.

Pontaut was among the many journalists who descended on Auckland for the trial of Prieur and Mafart in June 1986.

He spoke no English. As an aspiring journalist, I attached myself to him to serve as his guide, neglecting my beloved students for a week.


Driving around Auckland with Pontaut was an eerie experience. He had never set foot in New Zealand, and yet the harbour had no secret for him.

A terrorism trial would never happen like that in France
Jean-Marie Pontaut
"There is a bridge on the left after this curve," he said. "That's where Mafart and Prieur delivered the bomb to the frogmen who planted it."

When I stopped he pointed to a nearby building. "And that's the boating club where someone watching out for burglars spotted them that night."

Pontaut, unlike his colleague I had met six months earlier, was listening to New Zealanders - and he was impressed.

Despite tremendous public pressure, Prime Minister David Lange never interfered in the judicial process.

The agents were tried in an ordinary court by an ordinary judge on an ordinary charge - manslaughter, as prosecutors did not have enough evidence for a murder case.

"A terrorism trial would never happen like that in France," Pontaut told me admiringly.

"The government would have controlled the proceedings from A to Z," he said.

Jean-Marie Pontaut learned a lesson in New Zealand. He is not the only French journalist to have felt enlightened by a supremely civilised people.

Greenpeace marks bombing anniversary
07 Jul 05 |  Science/Nature
Eyewitness: Rainbow Warrior sinking
07 Jul 05 |  Asia-Pacific

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