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Tahiti's well-to-do rally against poor rioters

Papeete - Singing and clapping to a traditional song about joy and happiness, people on the island of Tahiti gathered at the weekend to call for peace and reunification after riots shook Papeete, the capital, in the wake of France's underground explosion of a test nuclear weapon last week, writes Robert Milliken.

In contrast to the 3,000 rioters, mainly young, poor and unemployed Polynesians, who laid siege to Papeete airport last Wednesday, those who rallied in the town's central square on Saturday were prosperous middle-class French settlers, Chinese businessmen, Polynesians and "demis'' (mixed-race French-Polynesians) who lost property in the fires and who came out to appeal for civil harmony.

Many of the estimated 4,000 people at the meeting represented the side of French Polynesian society which has done well economically from French rule over Tahiti, especially since France set up its nuclear testing facilities at Mururoa Atoll in the early 1960s. They went to the rally after cleaning up their burned-out shops and offices as life in Papeete returned to normal.

The meeting was called by the Cultural, Economic and Social Council, a non-government body representing business enterprises and civilian groups. The organisers insisted that it was a rally against violence, not against independence. But the crowd's passionate response showed that Polynesian opinion towards French policy is volatile and divided.

Laurent Bessou, a French settler who lost a travel agency in the fires, said: "There is a silent population here that does not want violence. Now that these events are over, please accept that our country is one of generosity, peace and hospitality.''

Daniel Demargny, another Frenchman, said: ''I believe that 80 per cent of French Polynesia, including French people, are against the nuclear testing. But many are afraid to demonstrate against it because they feel they're being used by the independence movement.''

But Richard Brotherson, the Tahitian owner of a contracting business, shouted Mr Demargny down.

''We Tahitian people expected this rioting a year ago," he said."Don't you think the French government owes something to the Tahitians for coming and blasting these nuclear weapons in our mother's womb?''

For the Polynesians, the ''nuclear economy'' has created big wealth inequalities. Living standards are high for the French, and for Tahitians such as those who attended Saturday's meeting.

But thousands of others have lost out, living in poverty with large families on the edges of Papeete. For the ''silent majority'' of Polynesians, support for the French rule that has brought them prosperity means accepting nuclear tests, although they are bitterly opposed by independent Pacific states, such as the Cook Islands and Western Samoa, as well as by the Polynesia independantistes.

Last week's riots provoked a backlash against the independence movement among many middle-class Polynesians. But if the violence is repeated after further nuclear tests, their anger may be transferred to Jacques Chirac, the French President. It is his intransigence in pushing ahead with the tests that has brought upheaval to their once tranquil social order.