Toxic Imprints of Bleu, Blanc, Rouge: France’s Nuclear Bombs in the Algerian Sahara

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Article published in The Funambulist 14 (November-December 2017) Toxic Atmospheres. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

On February 13, 1960, about five years after the outbreak of the Algerian Revolution (1954–1962) and four years after the first exploitation of Algerian oil in 1956, the French colonial regime detonated the first over ground atomic bomb at Reggane, in the Algerian Sahara. Codenamed “Gerboise Bleue” (Blue Jerboa) after a tiny jumping desert rodent, it had a blast capacity of 70 kilotons, about 4 times the strength of Little Boy, the United States’ atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima a month before the end of WWII. Blue Jerboa was followed by “Gerboise Blanche” (White Jerboa) on April 1, 1960, “Gerboise Rouge” (Red Jerboa) on December 27, 1960, and “Gerboise Verte” (Green Jerboa) on April 25, 1961. After the four atmospheric detonations, the French colonial regime carried out further 13 underground nuclear tests at In Ecker, in the Hoggar Mountains in the Algerian Sahara. These atomic tests were conducted despite the referendum on self-determination for Algeria on January 8, 1961 approved by 75 percent of voters and which was followed by Algeria’s independence from France in 1962 after 132 years of French colonial rule. From February 1960 to February 1966, France thus detonated 17 nuclear bombs in the Algerian Sahara, spreading radioactive fallout across Algeria, Central and West Africa, and the Mediterranean (including southern Europe); and causing irreversible contaminations among human, animal, vegetal, and the environment. With these toxic imprints, France became the fourth country to possess weapons for mass destruction after the United States of America, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the United Kingdom.

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Preparation work for “Gerboise Bleue,” Centre saharien d’expérimentations militaires (CSEM, or Saharan Center for Military Experiments), Reggane, Algerian Sahara (January1960). / Photograph by Raymond Varoqui (SCA / ECPAD).

France’s nuclear tests endeavors date back to the end of WWII, specifically to October 1945, when General Charles de Gaulle, President of the provisional French Government, created the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (CEA, or the Commissariat of Atomic Energy), a French civil institution conducting atomic research in sciences, industry, and national defense. In December 1956, the French military authorities established the Comité des applications militaires de l’énergie atomique (CAMEA, or the Committee for Military Applications of Atomic Energy) under the leadership of General Paul Ely, Chief of Staff of French National Defense. It brought together the civil CEA and the military forces and scientists to work on a joint long term nuclear program.

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Military operation “Gerboise rouge,” Saharan Center for Military Experiments, Reggane, Algerian Sahara (December 1960). / Photographs by Sapirstein Lacoste (SCA / ECPAD).

During the Algerian Revolution, the French Generals’ Putsch of May 13, 1958 in Algiers marked both the return of General de Gaulle (the founder of the CEA) to power and the collapse of the French Fourth Republic (1946–1958). The coup was led by the apostles of l’Algérie française (French Algeria), including General Jacques Massu, Commander-in-Chief of the bloody Battle of Algiers (1956–1957), and General Raoul Salan, France’s most decorated soldier at the time, one of the forefathers of counterrevolutionary warfare, who in early 1961 cofounded the paramilitary terrorist group the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS, or Secret Army Organization), which violently opposed Algeria’s independence and de Gaulle’s strategies. The May 1958 Putsch and de Gaulle’s restoration were fully supported by right-wing colons, known as the ultras, as well as figures like Jacques Soustelle, French ethnologist who served as Governor General of Algeria between January 1955 and January 1956.

In the aftermath of “May 58,” de Gaulle appointed Jacques Soustelle as Delegate Minister of Overseas Territories and Departments, the Sahara, and Atomic Energy, a post that existed from February 1959 to February 1960 under de Gaulle’s Prime Minister, Michel Debré. In his book L’espérance trahie (Hope Betrayed), published in 1962, Soustelle described his economic assignment in southern Algeria under French colonial rule: “I endeavored to carry out the work of a veritable economic integration in the Sahara, since oil, gas, and minerals were to be incorporated into the economy of the whole Métropole-Algeria.” De Gaulle had a personal understanding of the various assets of the Algerian Sahara, acquired during a private visit to various oilfields and construction sites in March 1957, prior to his official return to power in May 1958. The potential he foresaw there consisted not only in exploiting natural resources, but also in conducting a number nuclear tests in the Algerian desert during and after the Algerian Revolution. On 13 February 1960, de Gaulle exclaimed: “Hurrah for France! From this morning she is stronger and prouder.” However, such a pride never seemed to be affected by the destruction of human, animal, and vegetal lives and the toxification of hundreds of thousands of kilometers of environments in Algeria and elsewhere.