Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. She is the author of Future Tense: The Culture of Anticipation in France Between the Wars (2009), and the host of New Books in French Studies, a podcast on the New Books Network. Here, she shares thoughts about her article, “No Hiroshima in Africa: The Algerian War and the Question of French Nuclear Tests in the Sahara” from History of the Present.
Launched only twenty years after the German invasion, defeat, and occupation of France, the series of French nuclear weapons tests that began with the detonation of Gerboise Bleue (an A-bomb of 70 kilotons) in the Algerian Sahara in 1960 was deeply connected to the legacies of the Second World War. This first test confirmed France’s entry into an “atomic club” including the U.S., U.S.S.R., and U.K. Over the course of the next three and a half decades, the French military conducted more than 200 nuclear tests, first in the Sahara from 1960 to 1966, and then in the Pacific from 1966 to 1996.
A pillar of postwar defense policy and the national self-representation of an autonomous France able to hold its own in the nuclear age, the “French bomb” was, from its very inception, imbricated with empire. And yet, historians have tended to tell the story of French nuclear weapons testing as one disconnected from that of the war of decolonization taking place at the same time. The resolution of that brutally violent conflict two years after Gerboise Bleue guaranteed the French state and military a right to continue testing in the Sahara for a further five years on the other side of the emergence of an independent Algerian state in 1962. Thinking together the histories and historiographies of the “Algerian War” and the “French bomb,” my research positions France’s first nuclear tests as wartime acts in the contested space of empire with legacies that continue to affect Algerian and French bodies, memories, and landscapes.