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France Drops an Economic Bomb on Tahiti

IN the capital of this remote island in the South Pacific, a club sandwich costs $18. Fish once drawn from local waters are now flown in from New Zealand. And school teachers, policemen, and city clerks take home double the salary they could earn in Paris.

For many in the heart of French territory of Polynesia - a scattered grouping of 138 islands with a population of nearly 200,000 people - such is the impact of life with "the bomb" since France began nuclear testing near here in 1963.

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Once-self-sufficient Polynesians have become dependent on an artificial economy boosted by France's military expenditures. Unlike environmental activists around the world, their greatest fear about nuclear testing is not radiation but how they will survive without French subsidies once testing ends for good next year.

'Economic pollution'

"The biggest impact of 30 years of French nuclear testing was not environmental pollution, but the pollution of our economic environment," says Jacqui Drollet, a marine biologist and newly elected mayor of a small town on Tahiti.

"We've become more and more dependent on France. We produce less and less, and we hold out our hand more and more."

Before France moved its nuclear-testing facility from Algeria to Mururoa Atoll more than 30 years ago, Polynesians lived on what they could grow on the land or draw from the sea.

With the establishment of a test site on nearby Mururoa, there were concrete test bunkers to be built, barracks to be constructed, office equipment to be purchased, boats and aircraft to be maintained. The French Army paid double the salaries offered in France, with perks, to attract needed manpower.

Thousands of Polynesians moved from remote islands to fast-growing suburbs around Papeete, exchanging life on a fishing boat or among coconut palms for high-paying jobs with French nuclear testers or in burgeoning public bureaucracies."

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Swedish ethnologist Bengt Danielsson first came to Tahiti on the Kon-Tiki raft in 1947. He and his wife, Marie-Therese, have written extensively on Tahiti and Polynesia's outer islands.

"Before the bomb, families here were self-sufficient. They didn't need to buy much. After the testing program began, the coffee and taro plantations were abandoned, trees were cut down everywhere. Suddenly, instead of being able to provide for yourself, you were dependent on a salary," says Ms. Danielsson in an interview.

"It all happened very quickly," she adds. "Now there are social problems. Two generations have been born in very bad conditions and not in a normal environment. They can't care for themselves. They just have to look for jobs, but there is no industry."

Those who continued to make a living on the land faced high prices without a high government pay check. Many say their local government cares more about collecting customs duty on the massive imports required for nuclear testing than on helping small producers develop export capacity.

"Here, we've forgotten about what is small scale," says Jean Tama, who says he barely makes a living hauling pineapples in the back of a pickup from the island of Moorea across the ferry to Papeete. "All that counts is the bomb."

Expenditures from the French agency for nuclear testing in the Pacific (CEP) and the military increased from $2.4 million in 1962 to $72 million in 1970 and $513 million in 1994, dwarfing local production.

The economy moved from a balance of imports and exports in 1960 to a trade deficit last year of $655 million. But the French government compensated for such deficits with heavy investment.

Living off the bomb

"The economy here was largely developed by CEP money," says Admiral Philippe Euverte, who commands French forces in Polynesia and the Pacific. "All told, France transfers about 117 billion Pacific francs ($1.17 billion) to Polynesia annually."

French President Francois Mitterrand's announcement of a moratorium on nuclear testing in May 1992 threatened to end all this. Polynesian President Gaston Flosse, who has close ties with the ruling party in France, negotiated a "pact for progress" with then-French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur to continue the flow of French funds to Polynesia.

"People here had been talking about the end of testing," President Flosse told journalists last week. "President Chirac's decision to renew nuclear tests was a surprise. But we had no right of decision in this case. Jacques Chirac made his decision. That's it."

He concedes that new nuclear testing in the region will do little to boost tourism, Tahiti's main hope to replace nuclear testing as a source of revenue. The key to the region's economic future after testing, he says, is "compensation" from France.

"We have just won an agreement from France that for 10 years after the end of testing [expected in May 1996], France will continue to send us the average of what CEP has been spending for the next 10 years," he said.

But for critics, more French money only hinders Polynesians from developing an economic base. "We were beginning to make progress toward a new economy," says Mr. Drollet. "Now we're back to eight more months of benefiting from the economic largesse of the bomb."

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