In July 1985 the French Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) concluded a lengthy penetration of Greenpeace by sinking the environmental organization’s flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, which was in Auckland Harbor about to lead a flotilla of boats to protest French nuclear tests on Mururoa Atoll in Polynesia. The DGSE sent a team of saboteurs to New Zealand to place limpet mines on the ship’s hull, but after the first detonation, a Portuguese photographer, Fernando Pereira, went back aboard to retrieve his cameras and was drowned. A murder investigation was launched and although most of the DGSE group, which had posed as holidaymakers on a white-water rafting vacation, were evacuated on a yacht to an offshore rendezvous with a submarine, Dominique Prieur and Alain Maffart were questioned because their rented campervan had been reported acting suspiciously.
The two DGSE officers, posing as Swiss honeymooners named Sophie and Alain Turenge, were identified as intelligence personnel when it was learned that they had not shared a bed in their motel, which happened to belong to the prime minister, and that Maffart had forged an inflated total on his hotel bill even though he had insisted he was not claiming any expenses. The police realized he was on an official mission when his monitored telephone call to Paris was to a number that Interpol insisted had not been allocated.
Maffart and Prieur pleaded guilty to manslaughter in November 1985 and were sentenced to 10 years in prison, but were released into French custody following a deal which compensated Pereira’s family and Greenpeace. The arrangement required the pair to be confined to a French military facility on Hao Atoll, but a clause covering medical emergencies was invoked in December 1987 to repatriate Maffart, and in May 1988 Prieur returned to France having become pregnant following a visit by her husband. The French government was later held by a United Nations adjudication to have breached the terms of the agreement with New Zealand and was fined a further $2 million.
Although the French government denied all knowledge of the operation and was absolved of responsibility by a supposed independent investigation conducted by senior civil servant Bernard Tricot, it became clear that the DGSE had been authorized by Minister of Defense Charles Hernu, who resigned, as did the DGSE director, Adm. Pierre Lacoste. The episode had caused a major diplomatic incident, but there was minimal political blowback in France about the DGSE’s tactics, although professionals were dismayed that Maffart had compromised his cover by padding his expenses.