A French spy who infiltrated the environmentalist group Greenpeace and in 1985 helped bomb the organisation’s flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, has spoken to the media for the first time. The British-based activist organisation had purchased the trawler from the British government in 1977 and used it to carry out maritime research and other operations. In July 1985, the Rainbow Warrior, captained by the American environmental activist Peter Wilcox, was docked at the port of Auckland, New Zealand. It was being prepared to lead a flotilla of vessels to the French Polynesian atoll of Mororoa, in order to try to stop a planned nuclear test by the French military.
But on the night of July 10, 1985, two large explosions nearly split the ship in two, causing it to sink in less than five minutes. One of the Rainbow Warrior’s passengers, the Portuguese photographer Fernando Pereira, drowned after he boarded the sinking ship in order to retrieve his cameras and lenses.
Greenpeace blamed the government of France for the attack on the ship, but Paris denied any involvement. It later emerged, however, that the blasts had been caused by two plastic-wrapped explosive devices that had been placed on the exterior of the Rainbow Warrior’s engine room and on its propeller blades. The explosive mechanisms had been placed there by two divers working for the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure (DGSE), France’s external intelligence service.
Soon after the incident, two DGSE officers, Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur, were caught by New Zealand police. The spies had in their possession forged Swiss passports and were posing as a Swiss citizens. They were charged with —among other things— terrorism and homicide, and sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to the charges against them. Their trial made headlines around the world and led to the resignation of France’s Minister of Defence, Charles Hernu. Jean-Luc Kister, another member of the DGSE team who participated in the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior and escaped arrest, eventually issued a public apology to New Zealand.
French spy Christine Cabon has never been prosecuted for her involvement in the sinking of Rainbow Warrior and killing of an Italian photographer
But a fourth DGSE conspirator, Christine Cabon, who was 33 at the time, escaped arrest after seeming to disappear into thin air. Cabon had posed as Frederique Bonlieu a French geomorphologist, and had joined Greenpeace’s team in New Zealand after showing them a letter of introduction by Greenpeace’s London office. Upon joining the environmentalist group, Cabon’s mission was to access the Rainbow Warrior’s itinerary and facilitate its sinking by the DGSE. It was Cabon who gave the French spy agency the details of the ship’s whereabouts, thus enabling her comrades to bomb it. When it was bombed, on July 10, 1985, Cabon was in Israel, having left New Zealand on May 24. Soon after the ship’s bombing, New Zealand police discovered her whereabouts and sent a group of police officers to Israel to arrest her. But they arrived too late, as Cabon was already onboard an Air France flight heading to Paris.
After that time, Cabon practically disappeared. Until yesterday, when New Zealand’s Fairfax news agency revealed that its journalists had traced her to the French alpine village of Lasseubetat, near the Spanish border. In an article published on the occasion of the 32nd anniversary of the Rainbow Warrior’s bombing, the news agency said that Cabon was given an office job by the DGSE after her cover was essentially blown in New Zealand. She eventually left the spy agency and joined the French Army before retiring.
After she was contacted by Fairfax reporters, Cabon agreed to speak to them. In an interview from her home in the French Pyrénées, Cabon agreed that the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior must have shocked public opinion in New Zealand. “They were attacked by a friendly country”, she said. However, the former spy added that her “job was what it was”, and noted that “all military people, who serve their country, often find themselves in situations that they have not wished for”. When asked for details about the DGSE operation that led to the sinking of Greenpeace’s flagship, Cabon said she intended to “respect her contractual obligation” to the French security services, which prevent her from speaking publicly about her intelligence-related activities for 50 years after leaving the service.
When asked if she intended to issue an apology for the 1985 bombing, she told the Fairfax reporters that she had things to say to individual people that she met and got to know during her stay in New Zealand, “but not to the public”. Cabon is 66 today.
By Joseph Fitsanakis