PARIS - A French pensions court has awarded a historic victory to campaigners fighting for compensation for what they say are deaths or illnesses inflicted by France's nuclear test programme.

The court, in the central town of Tours, awarded an invalidity pension to a former Air Force lance-corporal who took part in France's first atmospheric tests in the Sahara more than 40 years ago, and who fell sick with polymyositis, a degenerative muscle disease, five years ago.

It is the first ruling to be handed down by a pensions court for a non-cancerous illness and greatly widens the definition by which people can claim compensation. Supporters say the judgement sets legal precedent - provided it is not overturned by a higher court. The French state has two months in which to appeal.

The plaintiff, Andre Mezieres, 65, was in Algeria from February 1962 to March 1964, when France was carrying out its first batch of nuclear tests.

Mezieres said he had been stationed in a base 40km from "ground zero" in the desert and, after the blasts, had handled sample cores of rock and soil that had been drilled out by scientists in order to be measured for radioactivity.

"We had no protection. Nobody said anything to us, they lied to us," Mezieres said. The court ruled that Mezieres should get an invalidity pension equivalent to 70 per cent of the full military pension, backdated to January 4, 2002, when he filed for compensation.

Attempts by military veterans and civilians to get compensation for health problems that emerged after nuclear tests have in the past been rejected by tribunals. The state argues that France's nuclear tests were safe and that the sickness may have been caused by contact with other radioactive substances or be the result of smoking or unlucky genes.

But the Tours court, in addition to recognising polymyositis as a claimable disease, took a hammer to the state's traditional defence. In effect, it said the state had not proved its innocence.

"Although the plaintiff was unable to prove the link between his illness and his exposure to radiation, the French authorities were unable to prove that this illness arose independently of his military service," the judgment said.

It noted that Mezieres had been in "close or latent contact with previously irradiated materials."

"The Tours tribunal has turned the burden of proof upside down," said Bruno Barrillot of the Lyon-based Centre for Documentation and Research into Peace and Conflicts.

"It could now serve as jurisprudence, although we still have to see whether the government will appeal."