Barry Soper: French PM visit reminder of fraught history

The partly-submerged Rainbow Warrior at Marsden Wharf on July 11, 1985. NZ Herald Archives
The partly-submerged Rainbow Warrior at Marsden Wharf on July 11, 1985. NZ Herald Archives

When a bomb ripped apart the hull of Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior at Auckland's Marsden Wharf just before midnight on July 10, 1985, the country was aghast.

It was, of course, made worse in that the Portuguese photographer on board, Fernando Pereira, was killed.

Within days David Lange was pointing the finger at the French, which came as a shock to those of us at the time.

But he was right because a fortnight later two French agents, Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart, were arrested. They were charged with murder but pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sent to jail for ten years.

Found out, the French government was obviously embarrassed but instead of burying its head, the French coq crowed. They behaved like bullies, threatening to use their influence to block our access to the European markets but boycotting our access to their country for good measure.

A year later the United Nations Secretary General at the time ordered an apology along with thirteen million dollars to be paid in compensation and a demand that the agents serve out their sentences in full on Hao Atoll in French Polynesia.

Well he was ignored by the French because the following year Mafart was back in Paris, because he wasn't feeling well, and Prieur followed him home the next year because she was pregnant. To add insult to injury they were both decorated as heroes.

The current French Prime Minister Manuel Valls was in his early 20s at the time and just a few years earlier had got his French citizenship over his native Spain. This week he became the first French leader to visit this country in 25 years. The last, Michel Rocard, came to belatedly say they were sorry.

When the Rainbow Warrior was blown up, Helen Clark was a rising star in the Labour Government and within a few years was Deputy Prime Minister.

Now she's running for the top job at the United Nations and France will be one of the permanent five Security Council members who'll have the ultimate say on her bid.

Prime Minister Valls acknowledged her talent and experience but said it was too early to have a formal opinion.

A little more enthusiasm for someone, who was in Government at the time of the bombing, would have been appreciated - but perhaps not by the son and daughter who never really got to know their 35-year-old father who went down with the Rainbow Warrior that night.

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