Sink the Rainbow by John Dyson, with Joseph Fitchett of the International Herald Tribune in Paris (Gollancz: $19.95; 192 pp., illustrated)
The sinking of the Greenpeace Movement’s flagship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbor on the night of July 10, 1985, by a team of French secret agents set off a political tidal wave which is still being felt in France and the Pacific.
It catapulted New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policies onto the world’s front pages and earned the international environmental group widespread sympathy and publicity for its anti-nuclear protests.
The bombing can also be said to have contributed to the French Socialist Party’s defeat in the March parliamentary elections.
In “Sink the Rainbow,” John Dyson, a New Zealand journalist and author, in collaboration with Joseph Fitchett of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, has put together a documentary account of the events which provoked the French External Security Service (DGSE) to sink the Rainbow Warrior in order to prevent it from leading a protest fleet to the nuclear test site at Moruroa Atoll in French Polynesia.
The fallout from this action almost swamped President Francois Mitterand’s government; it cost two high-ranking officials their jobs and damaged France’s image in the South Pacific.
Relying heavily on Greenpeace material and French newspaper accounts of what became known as “Underwatergate,” it gives an insight into French determination to maintain its independent nuclear strike force and its concern at attempts by Greenpeace and the governments of Australia and New Zealand to halt its nuclear testing program in the South Pacific.
Dyson catalogues previous Greenpeace protests at Moruroa which were met by firm French navy action, including the boarding of Greenpeace ships and manhandling of crews.
The book, written in a sometimes breathless journalistic style, dramatically reconstructs the sinking of the ship and the death of Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pierera. It follows the prompt arrest of two French agents in New Zealand, the discovery of a French secret service connection and the French government’s bungled attempts to cover up its involvement.
As pieced together by Dyson and Fitchett, the French sabotage team from the DGSE left such a clear trail that at first the French would not believe such an incompetent operation could have been carried out by its own agents.
New Zealand police found an outboard motor and French-made rubber dinghy abandoned in Auckland harbor shortly after the Rainbow Warrior sinking. It was traced to a shop in London, which had sold it to a man who was subsequently traced back to the DGSE in Paris.
Police also found two French military diver’s air bottles in the harbor. An onlooker took the number plate of a camper van that had picked up a mysterious wetsuit-clad figure who emerged from the harbor on the night of the sinking.
Two tourists who rented the van, posing as Swiss honeymooners, were arrested. Their passports were quickly found to be false; their one allowable phone call was placed to the DGSE in Paris.
“All that’s missing from this ‘made in France’ picture is a baguette, a beret and a bottle of Beaujolais,” a skeptical DGSE official is quoted in Le Monde.
But the French newspapers smelled blood. Led on by a series of leaks from other French agencies, they followed the trail to the office of Defense Minister Charles Hernu, who was eventually forced to resign. Admiral Pierre Lacoste, head of the DGSE, was sacked by Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, who admitted on French television that “agents of the DGSE sank this boat. They acted on orders.”
The arrested pair of agents in New Zealand turned out to be Capt. Dominique Prieur and Major Alain Mafart, both of the DGSE. The prosecution later dropped murder charges against them after they pleaded guilty to lesser charges of manslaughter.
Both were sentenced to 10 years in jail.
They are still in jail in New Zealand despite French demands that they be released because they were only soldiers following orders.
Dyson suggests that President Francois Mitterand’s government lost prestige in the eyes of French voters over the affair, “not because it had done anything wrong, but because it was caught.”
“In short, the government had made France look ridiculous. The display of Socialist incompetence sharpened the right’s hope of driving Mitterand from office. This improved the odds of a March ’86 election that left France in a state of political paralysis, with a weak president pitted against a strong conservative government.”
The March election result showed Dyson’s prediction to be remarkably accurate.
“Sink the Rainbow” will do nothing to change French perceptions that there is a strong anti-French sentiment in the South Pacific.