FAAA, TAHITI — FRANCE shoveled money into Polynesia when it started nuclear testing here in the 1960s, causing the economy of this city to grow at 17 percent a year. But for some, this dependence on France backfired: Faaa is the only one of 48 communities in this French territory to fly the flag of independence outside its city hall.
Tahiti's independence movement sees France's decision to resume nuclear testing as an opportunity to earn international support. "French testing would end the day Polynesia is independent," says Faaa Mayor Oscar Tamaru, the Tahitian independence leader.
But for locals, the issue of independence does not just revolve around testing but around the entire society that testing created, one far removed from the one Polynesians knew just three decades ago.
Polynesians moved here in droves from the outer islands in the 1960s, when French nuclear testing opened up high paying jobs in Tahiti and on Mururoa Atoll, the testing site. For many, life in Faaa was their first contact with electricity or television or a paycheck. Tin-roof shacks still cram the steep hillsides leading up from the sea.
Some now yearn for simpler days. At a gathering last Friday at city hall, where residents carried banners of national independence and others sat on grass mats with small children, Mr. Tamaru emphasized the need to scale down material expectations.
"Nuclear testing has been a disaster for our country," he says in an interview. "The French state has put in place an artificial economy that has made us dependent on nuclear testing."
TAMARU'S Tahitian independence party, Tavini Huiraatira (servant of the citizens) won only 17 percent of the vote in the last municipal elections, but none of these setbacks is in evidence in the warm and enthusiastic crowd that spills across the parking lot and into fields surrounding city hall.
"Oscar Tamaru could bring big changes in this country, says Richard Brotherson, whose Danish great-great grandfather was shipwrecked on Tahiti in 1852. "He would try to create some industries over here. That's what the French government should have done.
"We could have used that money to develop our fishing industry," he adds. "Our politicians say we're going to develop tourism, but I don't think our high prices or nuclear tests will encourage tourists to come. Many from Japan, Australia, and New Zealand are canceling their visits to Tahiti because of these new tests."
As for life without French nuclear largesse: "We have only 200,000 inhabitants in Polynesia, and we surely have enough resources to feed them," he says. "That's nothing at all."
For other city officials here, the prospect of an end to nuclear testing is as daunting as desirable.
"In Faaa, we've seen nothing but a steady increase in salaries, and we're at the point now where it's very hard to change the system," says deputy mayor Desire Tagaroa Takoragi. "We'll never be able to develop fishing or agriculture in this country if salaries stay so high. It just doesn't look profitable. People would rather just get it from Paris."