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Would-Be Demonstrators Frustrated in Polynesia

March 24, 1985|CHARLES J. HANLEY | Associated Press

PAPEETE, Tahiti — France has rebuffed new protests against its nuclear testing in Polynesia, and turned la bombe into a political weapon for independence activists in these storied South Sea isles.

Prying Polynesia from the French colonial grasp remains a distant goal, however. This, the Tahitians explain, is not New Caledonia.

In that sister colony across the Pacific, racial tensions between indigenous black Melanesians and white French settlers have exploded into violence over independence.

Here in the eastern Pacific, by contrast, generations of intermingling between the French and the golden-hued Polynesians have produced a more harmonious society, in a languid South Seas "paradise."

"It's difficult," said one frustrated anti-nuclear activist, Swedish anthropologist Bengt Danielsson, a long-time Tahiti resident.

No Protests in Streets

"The Polynesians simply don't see the point of protesting in the streets. It's such a European thing to do."

But the Polynesians' laissez-faire attitude is not the only factor that keeps them inside a shrinking French empire.

For the French military, the nuclear testing station has simply become too important for independence even to be contemplated for Tahiti and French Polynesia's 130 other scattered islands. And for the Polynesians the military establishment is an economic necessity--their standard of living would collapse if they had to depend on coconuts, pearls and tourism.

The territorial president, Gaston Flosse, chosen by the popularly elected Territorial Assembly, says that if Polynesians voted in a referendum on nuclear testing--an idea he has proposed to Paris--"they would vote to keep it going, for economic reasons."

The 18-year-old nuclear program has helped propel these islands--the "Garden of Eden" found by 18th-Century explorer Bougainville--into the modern age.

Much of Allure Remains

Much of the legendary allure remains: radiant sun and people, crystalline lagoons, jagged peaks beckoning through the mists. But a four-lane freeway now cuts through Gauguin's Tahitian landscapes, "No Swimming" signs are posted at Papeete's polluted beach, and smog occasionally settles over the bustling capital.

French Polynesia's 160,000 people are on average among the Pacific's wealthiest. By 1980, their gross national product per-capita already stood at $7,619, compared with $4,285 for nearby American Samoa.

Much of the income flows from the "CEP"--the Centre d'Experimentation du Pacifique, the military's nuclear-testing agency, whose payroll, purchasing and other spending account for one-third of the local economy.

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