BY MALCOLM McALLISTER
PAPEETE, French Polynesia-Protests erupted in Tahiti and around the world as soon as news spread that the French government had exploded the first of eight planned underground nuclear bomb tests at Moruroa Atoll on September 6.
Two hundred workers at the Moruroa test site were among those who responded to a call for a general strike in Tahiti at midnight that night.
The international airport at FaŠa became the focus of the protesters' "anger, frustration and humiliation," as veteran independence leader Oscar Temaru described it. FaŠa is the territory's second-largest town, just several miles from Papeete, the capital. Its mainly working-class and Polynesian residents are a bastion of the independence movement. The airport is used by the French military, as well as civilian aircraft.
Two thousand protesters attempting to peacefully block the runway were met by three armored cars and French government paramilitary police equipped with riot shields, tear gas, and stun grenades. As the protesters were driven back, anger mounted. Part of the airport and more than a dozen cars in the parking lot were set on fire.
Participants in the actions described the events to this reporter several days later. Groups of youths taunted police all day from behind steel barricades, hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails. They made masks from tee shirts or diving goggles and rigged up hoses to wash away the tear gas from their eyes. Helpers piled up mounds of rocks for the demonstrators to throw. Taunts were interspersed with the rhythmical banging of rocks on the steel barricades and metal roadside barriers.
At nightfall up to 200 demonstrators traveled to downtown Papeete and attempted to torch and stone the Territorial Assembly and French High Commissioner's residence. They smashed windows in some shops and offices in the swanky western end of the town, setting fire to a perfume shop, the tourist center, and other buildings. Most shops and offices in Papeete are French or Chinese owned. Clothing stores were looted.
Fifty people were left homeless and 16, including two police, were injured in the upheaval. One demonstrator had his hand blown off by a tear gas grenade. Damage was put at over US$20 million. The next day riot police from New Caledonia, one of France's other Pacific territories, and Foreign Legionnaires from the Moruroa test site were flown in to supplement the 300 gendarmes in Tahiti as the airport protest continued. More paramilitary police and troops were dispatched from France. On September 8 Temaru called for calm and by the following day the clashes had dwindled.
French government and local authorities were quick to blame the outburst of anger on Tavini Huiraatira No Te Ao Maohi (Servants of the People), the main independence party, led by Temaru. Tavini holds four of the 41 seats in the Territorial Assembly, double the number it won in the previous election. In the 1993 elections for the National Assembly in Paris, when faced with only one opponent, Temaru received 41 percent of the vote. Temaru is the mayor of FaŠa and his party controls the town council.
French authorities arrested Nelson Ortas, another Tavini leader, and accused Tavini activists of masterminding the events. The French High Commissioner said "instructions were given" to the demonstrators. "Don't try telling me it was a natural protest movement," he said.
The vast majority of people in Tahiti outside the military brass and pro-Gaullist elite are against the tests. Even Gaston Flosse, head of the territorial government, calls them "inevitable" rather than endorsing them. Tahitians have protested them ever since rumors swept the islands in the early 1960s that French president Charles de Gaulle was moving the French testing program to the South Pacific from the Sahara after France's defeat at the hands of the Algerian masses.
The latest protests came just four days after a march of 2,500 protesting the resumption of the tests after a three- year lull. On September 2, marching behind antinuclear banners and independence flags, and singing independence songs, the protesters converged on Tarahoi Square outside the Territorial Assembly building. Welcoming the demonstration, Temaru declared, "Our aim is to gain our freedom from this colonial power and this nuclear power. They are linked."
The core of the protest march had been on the road for five days, marching north to the capital in two groups along the east and west coasts of Tahiti. Each night local villagers made the marchers welcome and fed them. Nightly meetings were held in local churches. Numbers swelled September 1 as the east coast marchers reached FaŠa. Following the march, around 1,000 people stayed on for an open forum to hear speeches by antinuclear and independence activists from around the Pacific. Speakers also included members of parliament from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Europe, and Brazil who had traveled to Tahiti for the march.
Capitalist politicians from Australia and New Zealand have used widespread antinuclear sentiment to further the interests of their respective ruling classes in the Pacific. Both countries are former colonial powers with investments and trading interests in the region. When their interests have been threatened by popular struggles or instability - from Vanuatu to Fiji to Bougainville - the New Zealand and Australian governments have exerted diplomatic and military pressure to keep the lid on and maintain the status quo. They view the South Pacific as their "backyard," in which their larger rival, France, is an intruder.
A right-wing member of New Zealand's ruling National Party government, John Carter, recently demoted by the Prime Minister for mocking unemployed Maori on a radio talk show, joined the march in Papeete. At least one reporter commented on the irony of him marching alongside young Polynesian nationalists with "bandannas on their heads, tattoos on their arms."
The demagogic leader of the New Zealand First Party, Winston Peters, who is Maori, saw mileage in being there. His greeting in Maori, a very similar language to Tahitian, drew a warm response from the crowd.
People speaking out
The depth of antinuclear feeling in the territory was reflected at a march in late June, soon after French president Jacques Chirac announced that Paris was restarting the tests. Between 10,000 and 15,000 demonstrated then, up to 7 percent of the country's population, making it the biggest march in Tahiti's history.
People speaking out
"That was the first time I had seen so many people openly speaking out," Marie-Thťrese Danielsson told the Militant. Danielsson and her husband Bengt are prominent authors and long-time antinuclear campaigners in Tahiti. "For me it was the birth of a new kind of people. Many young people came and that is very important because the old people have always been a little bit afraid of retaliation or to speak up. But the young ones were in it completely," she explained.
Around 40,000 Europeans, mostly French, live in the territory along with 8,000 soldiers and transient officials. Seven percent of French Polynesia's 220,000 people are of Chinese descent. Brought over last century as indentured laborers, they gradually became dominant in local commerce. Shut out of political life by the French colonial rulers, they were denied the right to be citizens until 1964.
The economy of French Polynesia is relatively developed, though distorted. The colony comprises 130 islands spread over an area of ocean more than half the size of Australia. Economic development is centered on Tahiti, the largest island, where 80 percent of the population lives.
While the local Territorial Assembly has some powers, French Polynesia continues to be ruled in all important matters from Paris. For the Tahitian working class, life can be tough, especially for those in minimum wage jobs, the 20,000 unemployed, or the 20,000 newcomers from the outer islands crammed into plywood shacks in the valleys near FaŠa and Papeete. Every year 3,000 young people turn 18 and begin competing for scarce jobs.
Although wages are tied to the French minimum wage of US$1,500 per month in the public sector and US$850 in the private sector, and are higher, for instance, than in New Zealand, prices are astronomical, fueled by high import tariffs. Rent is 50 percent higher, at US$780 per month for a three-bedroom house. Gas is US$9.60 a gallon. Food, clothing, and the monthly phone bill are roughly double what New Zealand workers pay.
Frustration with the underlying issues of youth unemployment, the high cost of living, and growing social inequality has clearly added heat to the latest wave of protests in Tahiti. But the overriding issues are the wishes of large numbers of Tahitians to govern their own country and the offense dealt to their national dignity by the nuclear tests conducted by Paris. One banner in the flag- adorned protest village, permanently occupied in Tarahoi Square since June, sums it up. It reads: "Our country is not a garbage can."
Malcolm McAllister is a member of the Engineers Union in Auckland, New Zealand. He visited Tahiti August 15-22.
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