No Nukes in Paradise

Marlon Brando was a no-show, but just about everyone else, from native dancers in grass skirts and coconut-shell bras, to eco-babblers from Greenpeace, all united to protest nuclear tests by the French, who became, for a torrid Tahitian summer anyway, more reviled than American tourists

By Ron Gluckman/Papeete, Tahiti

IT WAS THE MOST EXPLOSIVE SHINDIG the South Pacific has seen since Pearl Harbor. Greenpeace sent the Rainbow Warrior. Paris dispatched several warships. Local residents packed picket signs and plenty of Hinano, the potent Polynesian beer, while dancers were decked out in coconut-shell bras and flower necklaces.

Tahiti’s most famous resident, Marlon Brando got into the party spirit by staying put on his own private island, thereby cutting down on the risk of holiday fatalities, not to mention the possibility that French commandos, under the influence of Hinano, might actually mistake the massive Brando for an island, and try to dock alongside him.

But even the reclusive thespian that locals call "Mormon Boom-Boom" would have to applaud the strange theatrics surrounding this year’s Heiva, by far the biggest holiday in Polynesia. The annual two-week celebration of dance, drumming and song starts at the end of June, but festivities continue even now on some islands.

An apocalyptic glow took Tahiti onto the evening news during this year’s Heiva, but it happens every half century or so, when another boat load of sailors or a scribe like Herman Melville, Somerset Maugham or James Michener washes ashore, gasping for superlatives to do justice to this Pacific paradise.

All those writers and more have painted a romantic picture of Polynesia that is, to this day, pretty accurate. Bare-breasted beauties do still sunbathe on Bora Bora’s more remote beaches. Descendants of the sexy sirens who long ago enticed the crew of the Bounty to mutiny, they have much the same effect on modern yachties.

Yet it is more due to Tahitian tranquility than a fondness for the French that Polynesia has remained under Paris rule ever since the British were booted out of paradise. That was 150 years ago, and there hasn’t been that much talk of change since.

"Tahitians aren’t that easily motivated," admits Danny Maker, who runs a small casino in Papeete, capital of Polynesia. "It takes a lot to get them interested, but nuclear testing has done the trick."

Indeed, the French have gotten everyone’s attention with a thermo-nuclear nudge, but nobody can explain the reasoning or bad timing. With the entire world talking about test-ban treaties in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, any discussion of dropping a few more seems extremely rude, even by French standards.

But can anyone really understand the French, who dress so well, smell so nice, but so often wind up chewing their fancy shoes? Some called it bluff, others bluster, designed to reiterate France’s feeble claim to world-power status. Whatever, it was a big blunder. Perhaps Chirac simply stumbled out of bed with a ferocious bad-wine hangover and, feeling tres nostalgic as he squinted at the tiny Calendar of France Greatness, noticed that it had been nearly a full decade since his nation had blown up a Greenpeace boat.

It was a major publicity coup for Greenpeace, which came to Tahiti loaded down with save-the-whales key chains and spewing eco-blabber. After a Three Stooges-style confrontation at sea with French commandos, spokesperson Stephanie Mills said, "We want to take this small message in a bottle and make it a message for the entire world."

The reaction was swift and enthusiastic, but then, everybody loves to bash the French. They torched a French consulate in Perth and a French car dealership in Italy. On live TV, an Australian comedian ordered a truckload of manure, and sent it to the French embassy. The French can snear at the protests from Phnom Penh to the Philippines, where they will riot over a few misprinted bottlecaps, but how to explain the picketing of French restaurants in apathetic Hong Kong? Sales of french fries fell off in America.

The real rocking was through the streets of Tahiti, where protests raged at the height of Heiva on July 14, when the unexploded Rainbow Warrior II returned to Papeete - 10 years after the original Warrior was blown up by French agents. The scheduling seemed out of the World Book of Irony. July 14 is Bastille Day, marking an even more monumental French snafu that cost the king his head in the 18th century.

Picket signs were paraded through Papeete’s seedy streets. "Chirac + Flosse = Assassins," read one, chastising both Chirac and Gaston Flosse, pro-nuclear president of French Polynesia. At the city’s main square, a Grim Reaper carried crosses adorned with messages: "Accuses levez vous," "L’ange de la mort," and, simply, "Murderers!"

Protesters planned to disrupt the annual Bastille Day parade, but there was little to disrupt. Instead of marches, much of the military was circling the harbor in rubber dingies, trying to block the arrival of the Greenpeace crew. Several thousand French residents had wisely opted to eat their croissants at home.

"We may have to get rid of the French," says Maker, normally a conservative. But he’s also a businessman, and knows tourists won’t come to Tahiti for nuclear testing. In fact, business has already fallen off. "There could be riots," he worries. "This is a disaster."

Or so it seems, as protesters shut down street traffic on Bastille Day. By nightfall, though, the picket signs are gone and the transvestites are back under the streetlights outside of Piano Bar. Music pounds from Papeete’s main stadium, as the hypnotic strum of an orchestra of ukuleles and rhythmic drums keep Heiva at full swing.

Along the waterfront, women are strapping on coconut shells, more concerned, for the moment, about flower leis than future fallout. Bombs may yet detonate in Polynesia, but, only hours after the protests, the peaceful pace has already returned to paradise.

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who booked his holiday in Tahiti to coincide with the nuclear summer. Traveling widely around Tahiti and the other islands of French Polynesia, disguised in a loud floral shirt, he filed numerous reports from the nuclear test hole in paradise, including this piece for the Wall Street Journal in July 1995. For another, more lengthy and serious report on the situation, turn to Tahiti Nuke2.

To take a non-nuclear tour of paradise, join Gluckman in the South Pacific Paradise

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