It begins to sound like that classic folk-tale confrontation between the languid elephant and the gnawing gnat.
With all that French President Francois Mitterrand has to worry about these days - nationalizing banks, courting the Israelis, selling arms to Nicaragua - who would guess that a tiny chunk of South Seas coral might be getting under his skin?
Moruroa, Mitterrand's potential nemesis, is a remote horseshoe-shaped atoll stranded halfway between Australia and California. It belongs to the Tuamotus, one of five archipelagoes annexed by the French during the mad 19th-century scramble for real estate in the Pacific. Formerly known as Etablissements Francais de L'Oceanie, and now simply French Polynesia (Polynesie Francaise), these 130 far-flung specks of land are spread out as far as England is from Yugoslavia and have a population half the size of Omaha, Neb. Among its islands are the legendary Tahiti and Bora-Bora, whose euphonious names conjure up visions of moonlit romance, Gauguin, and grass skirts.
Moruroa, just 800 miles southeast of Tahiti, has a very different reputation; in France it is synonymous with ''la bombe.'' Since the early 1960s, when Algeria won its hard-fought independence and chucked the French off their nuclear testing site in the Sahara, France has used Moruroa to detonate new warheads in its nuclear arsenal. Controversial to say the least, Moruroa has been a nagging quandary since de Gaulle was in power. Now the problem has been dropped in the lap of the new Socialist President.
In December a group of dissident engineers and technicians from Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique (CEA), France's atomic energy commission, breached the French Defense Secrets Act and released a startling and historic document. Their report charged that the French government's negligence on Moruroa had caused ''major ecological problems and endanger(ed) the lives of the personnel stationed on the island.'' The report presented evidence for the first time that:
* Shock waves from the test blasts had ripped through Moruroa's porous coral base and brittle basalt foundation, causing the atoll to sink some 1.5 meters (about five feet). Deadly radioactive waste was leaking from the cracking atoll and contaminating the ocean and the fish islanders ate. (The Australian government recently cited another study showing nuclear explosions had left vast fissures in Moruroa, one of which was 18 inches wide and a half-mile long.)
* International nuclear waste guidelines had been ignored and Moruroa's north beach had become a 30,000 square-meter (almost 71/2 acres) ''radioactive rubbish heap.''
* A violent tropical storm hit the north beach last March 22, ripping open a layer of asphalt which covered several pounds of radioactive plutonium. Waves flooded the man-made nuclear garbage dump, the report said, sweeping irradiated debris into the lagoon and out to sea. Broken storage bags and barrels ''spewing contaminated gloves and protective overalls,'' as well as contaminated tools and equipment, washed ashore for weeks.
* The French military conducted a quick clean-up, but on Aug. 3, the day before Mitterrand Defense Minister Charles Hernu arrived on Moruroa, another storm again devastated the radioactive waste area. Having witnessed the destruction firsthand, Mr. Hernu promised to take immediate action in dealing with the ''new radiological situation.'' Paris did nothing, the dissident scientists reported. Over the next three months, nuclear pollution doubled on Moruroa as more irradiated refuse washed ashore. According to some reports there is now enough radioactive waste in the north beach area to fill 200,000 44 -gallon drums, yet the French have not come up with satisfactory plans for disposing of it.
* The nuclear pollution crisis on Moruroa reached such proportions that on Sept. 22 some 2,500 CEA engineers and technicians threatened to strike.
If the dissidents' report did nothing else, it drove deeper the political wedge between Mitterrand and French environmentalists, many of whom voted for him last spring on the assumption that he would curtail France's ambitious nuclear programs and halt testing in French Polynesia.
Au contraire. In one of Mitterrand's first public appearances after the election, he boarded an atomic submarine and announced he would bolster France's nuclear force de frappe (strike force). Initially, Mitterrand called for a moratorium on testing at Moruroa, in order to conduct a thorough ''review.'' The review lasted but five days before the French resumed testing. Since Mitterrand took office last May, the French have triggered at least five nuclear blasts on the atoll, bringing the total number exploded there to 88.
New Zealand, which has protested French nuclear testing since the start, sent its Minister of Foreign Affairs to demand an explanation from Paris concerning the radioactive leakage. In January the government of Papua New Guinea demanded a halt on French testing. Trade unionists there threatened to boycott French ships and refuse to unload cargo if the French continued. The French ambasssador to that island nation, Antoine Colombani, said the tests would not stop. ''France is the only country in Europe that has very powerful nuclear bombs,'' he said. ''Without that, Russia would now be in Paris.'' (France did not sign the 1963 test-ban treaty on atmospheric nuclear experiments. In 1973 New Zealand dispatched a frigate into the testing zone to protest, and later was joined by Australia in taking the case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, which ruled in favor of a ban on atmospheric tests. Two years later, before the court's final ruling, French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing called for a halt to atmospheric experiments and in 1975 the French began conducting tests underground at Moruroa.)
At the same time that the engineers' report was released, more trouble was brewing for Mitterrand in the South -Pacific. In the middle of last fall's nuclear ''test season'' on Moruroa, Brice Lalonde, leader of the French environmentalist party L'Ecologie, along with four others, sailed the Greenpeace III, a 38-foot ketch, into the ''danger zone'' surrounding the atoll. Their intention was to protest and, hopefully, interrupt further French nuclear testing.
After playing cat-and-mouse for days with two French mine sweepers just outside Moruroa's 12-mile territorial limit, the Greenpeace III was intercepted and boarded by the French Navy. Lalonde, David McTaggart (the executive director of Greenpeace International), and the three other crew members were forced to turn back and set sail for Tahiti.
The incident made headlines from Paris to Perth. It was particularly embarrassing for Mitterrand because Lalonde and L'Ecologie have become quite influential as a third-party force in France. In the presidential elections last May, Lalonde polled 1.2 million votes -- almost 4 percent of the total cast --and ran third behind Mitterrand and Giscard d'Estaing.
In spite of Lalonde's protest voyage to Moruroa, the French government refused to cancel its nuclear tests. But it did offer a significant compromise: President Mitterrand agreed to let Lalonde return to Moruroa as part of a scientific investigation into the health and environmental consequences of the nuclear tests. Lalonde, Greenpeace, and the French Defense Ministry are now negotiating over the scope and size of the investigation. They are expected to reach a decision sometime next week.
That Moruroa may be a piece of radioactive Swiss cheese came as no news to Bengt Danielsson on Tahiti. To the Swedish-born anthropologist, whom many regard as the grandfather of the South Pacific's antinuclear movement, the revelations only confirmed the dangers which he and his wife have railed against since the early 1960s.
''For years we have been treated like outcasts and harassed by the French authorities in every conceivable manner because we have been asking questions about the health hazards resulting from the nuclear tests at Moruroa,'' said Danielsson recently in Tahiti. ''We feel no satisfaction whatsoever in discovering our fears are justified. The report sounds like the work of a mad writer of science fiction, but we believe it tells the true story.''
Referring to France's clean-up attempts on Moruroa, he added: ''On the Micronesian atoll of Eniwetok, the Americans have recently spent $100 million and two years in a desperate attempt to dispose of the accumulated nuclear waste. It has been thrown into an old bomb crater on the coral ring and sealed with a giant concrete lid. The dump is off-limits to islanders for the next 25, 000 years. So how could the French nuclear authorities solve their waste problem on Moruroa in three months without any concrete at all? The fact that all Pacific nations are finally opposed to any form of nuclear waste dumping into the ocean may explain why there has so far been more of a cover-up than a clean-up operation on Moruroa.''
Bengt Danielsson first arrived in Polynesia in 1947 as one of six crew members on Thor Heyerdahl's famous Kon-Tiki expedition from Peru to eastern Polynesia. The following year he returned to the South Seas with his French-born wife, Marie-Therese, to conduct an anthropological study of Raroia, the tiny, remote atoll where the Kon-Tiki raft was wrecked. In 1953 the Danielssons adopted Tahiti as their home. Marie-Therese is one of Tahiti's town councilors and has represented French Polynesia in the Pacific Women's Association. The two are said to be the foremost specialists on the history and culture of eastern Polynesia.
The Danielssons' spacious beach house is a half hour out of Papeete on the well-worn two-lane road to the Gauguin Museum. With the exception of a handful of islanders who farm coffee and taro in the steep steamy interior, everyone here lives a stone's-throw from the 150-kilometer (about 93 miles) road that rings the island. It is next to impossible to get lost here; whether you leave Papeete driving north or south, in three hours or so you will find yourself back at the same stoplight at the center of town.
The Danielssons work in an airy, one-story wooden structure that is a hybrid of a bungalow and a library. Dusty volumes, hundreds of them, line the living-room walls. A cat dozes beneath the television, and near the window a typewriter looks out to the Pacific. Bengt and Marie-Therese write as a team. In addition to their regular column, ''Postmark Papeete'' which appears in Pacific Islands Monthly, a highly respected news magazine, the couple has published a number of widely translated books: ''The Happy Island,'' ''Work and Life on Raroia,'' and ''Love in the South Seas.'' Their most recent book, ''Moruroa, mon amour,'' a highly controversial but well-documented volume on French nuclear tests in the Pacific, was published in 1974. The book chronicles France's colonial and military presence in Polynesia and charges that the French knowingly withheld ''information essential to a correct evaluation of the health risk'' of their tests.
Both Danielssons are outspoken critics of what they call the ''deGaullonization of Polynesia.'' They openly advocate Tahitian independence, and their politics have incurred the wrath of Paris. In 1960 Bengt was appointed honorary Swedish consul to Tahiti. In 1978, the year after ''Moruroa, mon amour'' was published in English, he was notified by Louis de Guiringaud, Giscard d'Estaing's minister of foreign affairs, that the duties of his consular post were incompatible with his profession as writer and anthropologist.
''We've gotten into all sorts of trouble for protesting,'' said Danielsson, flashing a mischievous grin across the room at Marie-Therese. As he spoke, Bengt's riotous beard swept about on his floral-print shirt. ''When the book came out and the French took away my official diplomatic recognition and they tried to deport me, they couldn't because my wife is both a French citizen and town councilor. But they certainly made life difficult for us.''
The Danielssons are highly visible in a culture in which dissent is not part of the local vocabulary. ''In the US and Europe, people are fighting nuclear weapons,'' said Bengt. ''Here, the local people are kind, gentle, but timorous. They don't stand up. They are afraid they will lose their jobs. Before the first bomb was exploded everyone was afraid of what the blast would do. But when the French finally detonated it, the people on Tahiti couldn't hear anything and figured there was nothing to worry about.''
In the late 1940s Tahiti was ''still a charming, sleepy little place,'' Bengt recalls. The island had no regular air service and it took five weeks to travel between Marseilles and Papeete on the Sydney-bound French steamer. Tahiti was just another overseas territory adminstered with benign neglect. Except for a few Navy conscripts and merchant seamen who had jummped ship, most of the Europeans who visited the islands were adventurers, artists like Paul Gauguin, or writers such as Herman Melville and Somerset Maugham, who transported the South Seas back to Europe in their novels or on their canvases.
Today Gauguin would hardly recognize his earthly paradise. The last two decades have herded Polynesia into the 20th century on all fours. The watershed was 1962 when Marlon Brando and his moviemaking entourage arrived in Tahiti to remake the 1935 classic ''Mutiny on the Bounty.'' The $18 million Hollywood epic employed hundreds of islanders. Farmers laid down their hoes, and fishermen beached their outrigger canoes and signed up as extras.
That same year, halfway around the world, Algeria won its independence from France. French Polynesia felt the fallout immediately. A steady stream of French nuclear scientists, engineers, and bureaucrats were transferred from the Sahara and began setting up headquarters for the new Centre d'Experimentations du Pacifique (CEP) in Tahiti. It was CEP's task to conduct nuclear tests on the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa. In the face of bitter local opposition, thousands of French Legionnaires flooded the islands to construct air bases on Hao and Anoa and set up supply bases in Papeete, the political and economic center of Tahiti.
''The worst natural disaster that can befall the peoples inhabiting the scattered islands of the Pacific Ocean,'' wrote the Danielssons in ''Moruroa, mon amour,'' ''is not a hurricane but a tsunami, a succession of tidal waves produced by a submarine earthquake. . . . The sudden flooding of the beautiful and peaceful islands of French Polynesia by 20,000 foreign troops and merciless profiteers in the early 1960s, when General de Gaulle made his fateful decision to build nuclear testing bases there, is fully comparable, in both its swiftness and magnitude, to the destruction wrought by a tsunami.''
Many of the French on Tahiti came from Algeria and still carry the colonial chip on their shoulders. ''They are still bitter about being thrown out and swear 'We're not going to lose this colony,' '' said Danielsson. ''Most of them treat Tahiti as a French colony and think Tahitians are unpatriotic.'' French Polynesia is governed by a locally elected Assemble Territoriale, its governor is French--appointed; Paris still pulls the strings.
''Polynesia's legal system is Parisian, as are the schools,'' said Danielsson. ''The children learn French from the beginning. Now there is talk of teaching Tahitian as a foreign language. When they teach French history, it's Napoleon's campaigns and mistresses. Schoolchildren have to learn about fine wines and squirrels, which have nothing to do with their island experience. . . .
''At school they eat rice, potatoes, meat - all imported food. There is no breadfruit or taro. And now at home Tahitian families eat mostly French bread, Nestle's condensed milk, corned beef, and sugar. . . . Young boys don't know how to climb trees or fish anymore. Most don't have the right to fish anymore because all the houses on the beach are owned by the French.''
But coupled with an islander's bitterness is his begrudging gratitude for a higher standard of living. Tahitians seem to have an odd resignation, if not attachment, to Papeete's pollution, discos, traffic jams, high-rise hotels, and shantytowns -- the trophies and spoils of modernity.
For decades the Tahitian economy thrived on fishing, subsistence farming, and a few exports like copra, phosphate, vanilla beans, and mother-of-pearl. But phosphate ran out, copra prices fell through the floor, and somebody in the West figured out how to produce artificial mother-of-pearl. While Tahiti's lushness gives the illusion of an agricultural Eden, arable land is hard to find. Nearly 65 percent of the islands' food is imported. Today the islands import on average 10 times what they export. France picks up the tab and writes it off as ''rent'' for Moruroa.
Tahiti's economic dependence on France and the issue of nuclear testing are inseparable. If France gives up its Polynesian territory it might have to look for another test site. Henri Hiro, president of Ia Ora Te Natura, a Tahitian environmental group, underscored the predicament: ''We realize perfectly the economic and social problems posed for the territory if the Pacific Experimentation Center goes, and the anxieties it would provoke for our elected politicians. But today they must not hesitate. If the safety of workers at Moruroa is no longer certain, then the safety of the entire population is threatened.''
Historically, the French governmeent has refused to comment on its nuclear tests in the South Pacific. Last week, however, during a state visit to San Francisco, Michel Jobert, one of Mitterrand's top-ranking Cabinet ministers, briefly answered questions posed by the Monitor. Jobert dismissed the recent row over Brice Lalonde's protest as ''not significant. France has chosen to be a nuclear power for many reasons. We need energy as free as possible . . . and we want the capacity to defend our freedom. We have a military nuclear effort and the socialist government is improving it.''
When asked if an independent Tahiti would mean France would lose a test site, Jobert ended the conversation curtly: ''I am a man of facts, I am not in your country to deal in political fiction.''
Mr. Danielsson believes Mitterrand is trying to have his coconut and eat it, too. ''The contradiction in Mitterrand's government,'' said Danielsson, ''is they are for a nuclear strike force but also for automony in the thrid world. . . . The socialist government says it's up to the people in the colonies to decide (on independence) for themselves, but who are the 'people'? Any Frenchman who steps off the next plane can vote here. Sixty percent of the people living in Polynesia are Polynesians but that could change.''
''What's more,'' Danielsson said, ''it's almost impossible for the Polynesian nationalist movement to make itself heard. Radio and television are run by the French government. Both newspapers are basically Gaullist. Until recently, the government controlled the mass media, just like in a communist country. The opposition was never allowed to use radio and television, though in July's legislative election the local candidates were finally allowed to speak on TV -- for seven minutes and in Tahitian.''
Nevertheless, nationalism flourishes. In the last elections all of Tahiti's major political parties demanded full internal self-government, and a majority of the voters backed candidates who were opposed to France's nuclear testing.
What was once just a romantic addendum to the French empire has now become a political hot potato. Mitterrand, no doubt, will spend months walking the fence between the Tahitian clamor for independence and France's nuclear aspirations. Meanwhile, Polynesians are gritting their teeth, perhaps preparing to bite the hand which for two decades has fed them.
Whatever the outcome of Brice Lalonde's scientific investigation on Moruroa, its days as a test site appear numbered. Work has already begun on Fangataufa atoll, 25 miles west of Moruroa and site of France's first two underground tests. Many predict the French are about to move their operations there. If native Polynesians had their way, however, the French would pull up stakes altogether and paradise, or what's left of it, would at last bid ''la bombe'' adieu.