A day after France exploded a test nuclear weapon at Mururoa atoll in French Polynesia, I found myself running with Polynesians along the palm-fringed shore of Tahiti, escaping French tear gas and stun grenades.
This is normally one of the world's most untroubled island paradises, a place that has charmed and inspired countless visitors since Europeans discovered it in the 18th century, from Captain Cook and Fletcher Christian to Paul Gauguin, Somerset Maugham and Marlon Brando. Today Tahiti is in shock, after the most violent riots since France took it over as a colony in 1842, together with the 117 other islands that make up French Polynesia.
A French nuclear weapon detonated in the Pacific under Mururoa, 600 miles south of Tahiti, yesterday set off a day of rioting by hundreds of young Polynesians calling for an end to France's nuclear testing and colonial rule. For 12 hours they bombarded the international airport at Papeete, Tahiti's main town, with stones and Molotov cocktails, setting fire to the terminal and burning cars. The air above Papeete and its harbour, where Captain Cook anchored in 1769 to study the transit of Venus across the sun, was thick with smoke and fumes, and echoed to explosions from stun grenades and tear gas bombs fired by French riot police.
As night fell, the rioters moved to Papeete's centre, where they ran amok, smashing shop and office windows and setting fire to French government buildings. The riot spread like wildfire. Within minutes of youths hurling stones at the French High Commission, hundreds of Polynesians appeared along the road leading from the airport and the fracas escalated. Gendarmes, caught unawares by the scale of the riots, regrouped to focus on protecting the offices and residence of Paul Ronciere, the High Commissioner, France's most senior official in Tahiti. The rioters attacked the iron gates outside the lush tropical gardens surrounding Mr Ronciere's mansion, but failed to make it inside.
Another 300 military police went to the island while 40 parachutists arrived earlier yesterday, military sources in Paris said.
After more than two months of international opposition to the decision by Jacques Chirac, the French president, to resume nuclear weapons testing at Mururoa, most people expected demonstrations in Tahiti. But no one envisioned the violence that rocked the island yesterday.
It began when supporters of Oscar Temaru, leader of Tavini Huiraatira, the main anti-nuclear, pro-independence party, staged a peaceful protest at the airport. They occupied the runway, blocking it with canoes, rocks and coconuts. Within an hour, the coconuts were being met by stun grenades. About 3,000 Polynesians gathered along the road outside the airport, watching and chanting support as a hard core of around 500 attacked the terminal building, smashing video monitors and glass walls and setting fire to the restaurant. More than 300 riot police confronted them.
A DC-10 aircraft belonging to AOM, a French airline, was about to depart for Paris, but was forced to return to the terminal, where police disembarked its terrified passengers and took them to safety through a back street. Then the rioters turned on the airport car park, where they set fire to a dozen vehicles, including one belonging to an ITN news crew.
The grenade shooting had already begun when I arrived at Mr Temaru's office near the airport runway. He is the mayor of Faa'a, an industrial area of Papeete, which differs from most industrial zones in being bordered by waves crashing over a reef, palm trees and the dramatic outline of the island of Moorea across the water. Many of the people shattering this tranquillity were young Polynesian hotheads not directly linked to Mr Temaru's independence party. But he put the blame for the riots on Mr Chirac for failing to heed calls from around the world to call off the nuclear tests. "What you're seeing today is the reaction of the people to the French nuclear bomb," he said. "Since Chirac's decision, the feeling of humiliation and anger in the population has been growing. The people wanted to occupy the airport this morning to call for a referendum on whether these islands should be used for French testing. The French received them with tear gas and bombs. Now the situation is out of control. The violence comes from the French state."
Among the demonstrators near the airport, a middle-aged Polynesian man told me: "This is only the beginning. France must take its nuclear bombs and blow them up in France, not here. This is our life. We don't want French people coming here doing what they want without asking us."
When I reached the airport terminal through tear gas clouds, the scene was devastating. Delphin Graeff, a High Commission spokesman there, looked shaken. He said: "We were concerned about the risks of demonstrations. But this is a level of violence we haven't seen here before."
Violence also breeds violence, and if the French had rounded up the hotheads instead of blasting them with tear gas, things might have been different. Watching the rioters torch cars and shops at random and run through tear gas smoke to hurl stones at the gendarmes, I wondered whether this was the beginning of France's Algeria in the South Pacific.
Last night Tahiti's airport was closed indefinitely. From above Papeete, I looked down on flames roaring into the sky from the centre of town. Twenty demonstrators and riot police lay injured, including one young Polynesian whose hand was almost blown off when he picked up a stun grenade.
Can Mr Chirac afford to carry on with the tests on the other side of the world in the name of French pride, prestige and power? If he does so, he risks turning the South Pacific, one of the world's last peaceful regions, into a flaming cauldron.Reuse content