French Agents Sink the Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior caused an international furor that drew attention to nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

Summary of Event

In 1977, a badly aging North Seas fishing research trawler, the Sir William Hardy, joined the “eco-navy” built by the environmental activist organization Greenpeace. The vessel was purchased for Greenpeace through a grant of some $94,000 from the Dutch Wildlife Fund. At the suggestion of a Greenpeace official inspired by the French novelist Hugo Verlomme, Verlomme, Hugo the ship was renamed the Rainbow Warrior. At 417 tons, it was a large vessel by Greenpeace standards, with room to sleep more than twenty people. Greenpeace;Rainbow Warrior sinking Rainbow Warrior (ship) Antinuclear activism [kw]French Agents Sink the Rainbow Warrior (July 10, 1985) [kw]Sink the Rainbow Warrior, French Agents (July 10, 1985) [kw]Rainbow Warrior, French Agents Sink the (July 10, 1985) Greenpeace;Rainbow Warrior sinking Rainbow Warrior (ship) Antinuclear activism [g]Oceania;July 10, 1985: French Agents Sink the Rainbow Warrior[05770] [g]Australia/New Zealand;July 10, 1985: French Agents Sink the Rainbow Warrior[05770] [g]Polynesia;July 10, 1985: French Agents Sink the Rainbow Warrior[05770] [c]Environmental issues;July 10, 1985: French Agents Sink the Rainbow Warrior[05770] McTaggart, David Mitterrand, François Hernu, Charles Cabon, Christine Huguette Pereira, Fernando

In the eight years before the ship’s fateful voyage in 1985, Greenpeace used the Rainbow Warrior to assist in an ongoing campaign against the illegal hunting of whales and harp seals. The ship’s crew traveled to waters off Iceland, Spain, Portugal, Canada, and Siberia to record damage being done to marine life. The news media showed remarkable interest in these activities. Greenpeace filmed the behavior of the whaling crews and released the films to major international news agencies. Aided by the publicity generated from the Rainbow Warrior’s exploits, Greenpeace saw its multinational membership grow to more than one million in 1984. Many people who were awakened to environmental concerns in the 1970’s were attracted by Greenpeace’s principal objective, established at its founding in 1971, to bear witness, peacefully, to international misconduct on the high seas. Greenpeace members knew that this peaceful observance would stimulate the hostility needed to keep the organization’s environmental message in the forefront of the news.

The Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbor, New Zealand, on July 11, 1985, after it was bombed by French agents to prevent it from setting sail to protest French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

(© Greenpeace)

In the autumn of 1984, the Rainbow Warrior was taken to Jacksonville, Florida, for a refitting that included the addition of sails to help cut fuel costs. The next expedition planned for the ship was an antinuclear campaign in the South Pacific. The campaign was intended to focus worldwide attention on the consequences of nuclear testing by the United States and France. This was not a new concern for Greenpeace. In 1972 and 1973, David McTaggart, a former businessman who became the chairman of Greenpeace International in the 1980’s, had taken another Greenpeace sailing ship, the Vega, Vega (ship) to Mururoa in an attempt to force the French to postpone nuclear testing there. His tactic was to sail the Vega into range of the fallout the test would create, thus requiring that the test be halted. McTaggart so angered French authorities that his ship was rammed by a French navy minesweeper in 1972, and he was beaten by French navy personnel in 1973. In subsequent court action in France, McTaggart was awarded damages, and in 1975, France announced that its future nuclear testing would be conducted underground.

The 1985 campaign signaled a renewed Greenpeace attempt to make the South Pacific nuclear-free. Specifically, the Rainbow Warrior’s mission in the South Pacific was threefold: to draw attention to Strategic Defense Initiative Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or so-called Star Wars) research by the United States on Kwajalein Atoll; to show the world the effects of radiation on the peoples of the Marshall Islands, particularly the Rongelapese; and to lead a flotilla from Auckland, New Zealand, to Mururoa to protest the continuation of French nuclear testing. The visit to Rongelap was to include a symbolic evacuation of people contaminated by nuclear fallout. Organizers made this evacuation the focal point of the voyage, as that activity was certain to attract a considerable amount of publicity.

With a crew of eleven captained by American Peter Willcox, Willcox, Peter the Rainbow Warrior left Florida on March 15, 1985. It went first to Hawaii, where several other people joined the crew, including Portuguese photographer Fernando Pereira, New Zealand journalist David Robie, Robie, David and several Rongelap Islanders. Other newspaper and television journalists from France, Great Britain, and Japan joined the ship’s crew at a stop in Majuro.

The symbolic evacuation of people from Rongelap was a stunning success for Greenpeace. In a tragic misjudgment by American scientists, fallout from a hydrogen bomb test in 1954 had drifted over the island of Rongelap. The result was a legacy of leukemia, thyroid cancer, birth defects, and miscarriages. Despite the reassurances of U.S. scientists and physicians, the Rongelapese believed the residual radiation still imperiled their lives in 1985. As a result, the people of Rongelap accepted Greenpeace’s offer to transport them to the uninhabited island of Mejato. It took several days, but Greenpeace moved all 320 people and their possessions, including pigs and chickens, to their new home. The international publicity was everything Greenpeace had hoped for, but it also alerted French officials that the Rainbow Warrior’s planned participation in the peace flotilla to Mururoa was not to be taken lightly.

The Rainbow Warrior next stopped at Kwajalein, the research base for the U.S. SDI undertaking. Greenpeace was protesting the fact that, with the Cold War still in effect, American activities made Kwajalein, and therefore the South Pacific, a central nuclear target. At Kwajalein, the Rainbow Warrior crew enraged and humiliated security personnel by placing a protest banner reading “We Can’t Relocate the World: Stop Star Wars” on a fence protecting a radar dome.

From Kwajalein, the Rainbow Warrior sailed into Auckland Harbor and moored at Marsden’s Wharf on Sunday, July 7, 1985. On July 10, as final plans for the flotilla were being made, two frogmen, later identified as agents of the French General Directorate for External Security General Directorate for External Security (France) (DGSE), planted two bombs on the hull of the Rainbow Warrior below the waterline. The saboteurs, who had entered New Zealand using false passports, had been in New Zealand for several days preparing for the attack. When the explosives were detonated, the Rainbow Warrior was irreparably damaged and sank by the keel. Fernando Pereira, who was the only crew member on board at the time, died in the blast.


The effect of the destruction of Greenpeace’s flagship was nothing short of spectacular. News of the event spread quickly around the world, with radio, television, and newspapers giving the story major and relentless coverage. Pereira’s death in the explosion added human interest to the accounts. Environmentalists were outraged, and even those who had no interest in Greenpeace’s cause wondered why a peace ship was blown up. In the weeks immediately after the sinking, the Greenpeace organization in New Zealand floundered in confusion and dismay, and a diplomatic nightmare was created for the French Socialist government of François Mitterrand.

Almost immediately, New Zealand’s prime minister, David Lange, Lange, David] the architect of New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy, called the bombing a criminal act of political terrorism. Physical evidence recovered at the scene clearly indicated that the saboteurs had used French equipment. The French government denied any involvement. Several French weekly newspapers prepared articles accusing the DGSE of plotting the sabotage, and Mitterrand was thus prompted to order a full investigation. Eventually, inquiries were carried out by France, New Zealand, Greenpeace, and an independent team from The Sunday Times of London.

Although the investigations varied in their conclusions, when they were completed no doubt remained that the DGSE had planned the assault on the Rainbow Warrior. In March, 1985, highly placed French officials, including Charles Hernu, the French defense minister, had considered the Rainbow Warrior’s participation in the protest flotilla to be a threat to French nuclear independence. Military officers had agreed that France needed to keep pace with the latest nuclear weapons Nuclear weapons;testing Weapons;nuclear France;nuclear weapons testing technology and therefore continued testing in French-controlled areas of the South Pacific. France had already conducted more than one hundred such tests on Mururoa. Hernu had ordered that the DGSE increase its intelligence operation to help predict Greenpeace’s Pacific activities.

It was learned that a French spy, Christine Huguette Cabon, had been sent in April to infiltrate the Auckland Greenpeace office. Using the name Frédérique Bonlieu, Cabon arrived in Auckland posing as a scientist with a profound interest in environmental issues. She was, in fact, a geographer, a mapmaker, and an experienced intelligence officer who had spied on the Palestine Liberation Army for France. Fearing detection, Cabon left New Zealand after a month. Although Greenpeace had no secret files and no secret plans for her to see, Cabon did provide logistical information intended to assist the sabotage of the Rainbow Warrior. The revelation of Cabon’s true identity caused recriminations among Greenpeace volunteers in New Zealand and, for a time, weakened the organization’s operations in Auckland.

On July 24, 1985, New Zealand detectives, with the help of Interpol, arrested two of the conspirators, who were French nationals. Several months later, the two pleaded guilty to manslaughter and willful damage and were sentenced in a New Zealand court to ten years in prison. Their connection to French intelligence was proven beyond a doubt, but the French government continued to deny any role in the conspiracy.

When the investigative report requested by Mitterrand was released in August, it contained damaging information about French intelligence operations in the Pacific but did not conclude that French agents had set the explosives. The report inflamed the worldwide press, including French newspapers and journals, to proclaim that Mitterrand wanted to whitewash the affair. His actions were compared with those of President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Some of Mitterrand’s political opponents who generally supported actions against Greenpeace charged Mitterrand’s government with bungling the operation. In September, Mitterrand was forced to admit French culpability in the plot, and Hernu resigned. In addition, there were dismissals, demotions, and reassignments in the DGSE. It was never proven that Mitterrand knew about the sabotage before it occurred, however, and his popularity remained strong with French voters.

Greenpeace leaders, at first stunned and dispirited by the sinking, quickly recovered. International chairman McTaggart realized that the attack on the Rainbow Warrior provided a media opportunity for Greenpeace. He went to Paris and openly assailed the French government. As a matter of policy, Greenpeace typically avoided political maneuvering, but this time it was inevitable. The ensuing publicity surpassed anything the organization had achieved in the past. Donations and new memberships increased. Greenpeace became the world’s premier environmental group. McTaggart cleverly urged a team of reporters from The Sunday Times of London to investigate the incident, and their efforts provided readers with a fascinating tale of intrigue and sabotage that guaranteed continuing interest in Greenpeace.

In the Pacific, the impact of the Rainbow Warrior’s sabotage galvanized antinuclear sentiment. The Mururoa peace flotilla went ahead without its flagship, and the media attention the activity received was much greater than anticipated. When leaders from nine South Pacific nations signed the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (1985) at Rarotonga on August 6, the event had added poignancy and resolve. The United States and France scorned the treaty, triggering an angry reaction from many people in the South Pacific. In November, 1985, islanders in the vicinity of Kwajalein forced the United States to stop missile tests by occupying several islands in the splashdown zone. When the U.S. nuclear submarine Portsmouth arrived unannounced in Suva, Fiji, in January, 1986, the Fijian government came under intense criticism for allowing the ship to enter Fijian waters.

The most notable impact of the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior was the announcement by the French government in April, 1992, that it would stop nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Combating the ceaseless protests of Pacific Islanders was no longer worth the effort, particularly since the Cold War had ended. Many Greenpeace members and other antinuclear protesters concluded that the French decision marked a final victory for the shattered Rainbow Warrior. Greenpeace;Rainbow Warrior sinking Rainbow Warrior (ship) Antinuclear activism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Firth, Stewart. Nuclear Playground. Honolulu: Allen & Unwin, 1987. Highly regarded Pacific historian presents a critical account of nuclear testing and its consequences in the South Pacific. Challenges Western attitudes toward Pacific Islanders. Includes notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Michael. Death of the Rainbow Warrior. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Highly readable account of the sabotage by a prize-winning journalist and scholar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robie, David. Blood on Their Banners: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books, 1989. Superb study of colonialism in the South Pacific by the director of journalism studies at the University of Papua New Guinea. Includes a chapter on the Rainbow Warrior. Features glossary, notes, index, and bibliography. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Eyes of Fire: The Last Voyage of the Rainbow Warrior. Rev. 4th ed. Auckland, New Zealand: Asia Pacific Network, 2005. Compelling firsthand account of the last voyage of the Rainbow Warrior by an author who was on the ship for eleven weeks in 1985. Although he was never a Greenpeace member, the author clearly sides with the Greenpeace campaign in the South Pacific. Includes superb photographs, cartoons, and some notes. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sunday Times Insight Team. Rainbow Warrior: The French Attempt to Sink Greenpeace. London: Hutchinson, 1986. Thorough journalistic investigation of the bombing compiled by the staff of The Sunday Times of London. The reporters, who were given access to all Greenpeace documents, contend that Greenpeace did not seek to influence their findings. Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weyler, Rex. Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 2004. Comprehensive biographical account of the founders and evolution of the environmentalist organization, its political divisions, and its campaigns. Includes photographs and index.

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Categories: History