The Battle for French Polynesia’s Future
In French Polynesia, they’re gearing up for next month’s municipal elections. It’s another round in the long-running battle over its future, between President Gaston Flosse and opposition leader Oscar Manutahi Temaru.
There’s a range of other politicians seeking re-election to local town halls, but the title bout continues between these long-standing rivals, over economic reform, independence and the legacy of France’s nuclear testing.
In elections for French Polynesia’s Assembly last May, Flosse won 38 of 57 seats in a compelling victory over Temaru’s Union pour la Démocratie (UPLD or Union for Democracy) with 11 seats and A Ti’a Porinetia with eight seats.
Voters were angry over the outgoing government’s management of the territory’s fiscal crisis, declining tourism and growing unemployment. They were also tired of musical chairs in parliament, with 11 changes of government over the last decade.
Since then, President Flosse has been everywhere. His administration has negotiated new loans from Paris worth 5 billion CFP French Pacific francs (US$57 million). Last year, Flosse was chosen to chair the Polynesian Leaders Group and has offered to host a secretariat in Papeete for the sub-regional organisation. In December, Flosse led a delegation to China, wooing trade, tourism and investment.
His Tahoera’a Huiraatira Party is poised to do well in the March municipal elections. On the other hand, Flosse faces obstacles and challenges on every front. The ageing politician is currently appealing a series of convictions for corruption (although his next court case has been delayed until June, well after the municipal elections).
French Polynesia faces ongoing structural problems to transform its economy in the post-nuclear era, with a large and expensive bureaucracy dominating economic life and unemployment nearly doubling in the last five years.
The government has already faced one ministerial reshuffle after Transport Minister Bruno Marty had an accident driving without a licence after one too many drinks!
Most importantly, Flosse’s 2013 electoral victory coincided with the decision of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to reinscribe French Polynesia on its list of non-self-governing territories.
The UN resolution culminates in a long campaign by Temaru’s independence party Tavini Huiraatira no Te Ao Maohi and came with the support of most Pacific Islands Forum Countries. It opens the way for increased international scrutiny of France’s colonial and nuclear policies in French Polynesia, at a time when France’s three Pacific dependencies are looking to strengthen their links with the Pacific Islands Forum.
Flosse first served as president of French Polynesia in 1984. Twenty years on, the long rule of this fierce opponent of independence came to an end after the Tavini Huiraatira Party united with other groups to form the Union for Democracy Coalition (UPLD).
The UPLD’s narrow majority in the 2004 French Polynesian Assembly elected Oscar Temaru as the first president who supported independence from France.
In the decade since the UPLD victory—known as the Taui—local opinion on French Polynesia’s future has shifted slowly but significantly, even as control of the government has swung back and forth between supporters and opponents of independence.
The UPLD’s period in government was marked by lack of ministerial experience, unstable political coalitions and Paris’ unceasing opposition to Temaru’s agenda.
This combined to bring about 11 changes of leadership since 2004, with Flosse, Temaru and former Flosse ally, Gaston Tong Sang, alternating as President.
Successive French governments delayed or restricted funding allocated to the UPLD government.
At the time of the coalition’s election victory in 2004, Overseas Minister Brigitte Girardin told the National Assembly that “the election process was far from over”, attempting to cobble together a coalition between Flosse and the smaller centrist parties. She went on to suggest that France would “turn off the taps”, restricting finances to the UPLD government (Today, Girardin serves as the Flosse government’s adviser, lobbyist and representative in Paris and Brussels).
Flosse’s latest return to office highlights the political and economic stasis in Papeete and the lack of vision for new post-nuclear economic options. As New Caledonia moves towards crucial Congressional election next May which opens the way for a new political status for the Melanesian nation, French Polynesia seems stuck in the past, awaiting a post-Flosse era.
Economic woes cut jobs in Tahiti
Today, French Polynesia’s economy is in trouble, with declining revenues from key economic sectors and a reliance on French grants and loans (amounting to 175 billion CFP or Euro 1.46 billion a year).
The flow of funding from the French government declined at the end of nuclear testing in 1996, although the post-nuclear transition of the economy was aided by a “progress pact” designed to promote aquaculture, pearls, tourism and construction.
This Fond pour la reconversion de l’économie Polynésienne (FREPF) has since been replaced by new contracts guaranteeing funds from Paris. Over the last five years, Paris and Papeete have been implementing an agreement for infrastructure projects and this compact is being extended throughout 2014.
But the nuclear era distorted French Polynesia’s economy, which is now dominated by a service sector that employs over 80% of the workforce (unlike other Pacific countries, there is little employment in agriculture, with the 2012 census recording only 1,764 agricultural workers in a total paid workforce of 73,437). Control of national and local government provides an opportunity for patronage to reward loyal supporters, while much of the French aid boomerangs back to Paris.
The global financial crisis in 2007-2008 led to a decline in employment and overall business turnover in recent years. Data from recent censuses shows that unemployment increased to 21.8 percent of the population by 2012, compared to 11.7 percent in 2007.
According to France’s central bank for the region, the Institut d’émission d’outre-mer (IEOM), the number of jobseekers increased from 5,026 at the end of 2006 to 9,928 at the end of 2012. French Polynesia needs an estimated 2,500 new jobs a year to provide opportunities for school leavers and offset losses in key industries like tourism.
Since his re-election last year, President Flosse has focused on economic issues, looking to France, China and other partners for aid, trade and investment (see box titled Flosse taps Beijing-Tahiti connection for increased tourism).
Flosse has been lobbying Paris for an advance loan of 5 billion CFP to fund new infrastructure. As France’s Overseas Minister Victorin Lurel arrived on an official visit to French Polynesia last November, Flosse described him as “Father Christmas”, coming to open his sack of goodies.
Paris has only agreed to the loan under a deal that would force Papeete to repay it within two years, though President Flosse has been negotiating for better terms at a time when the Standard & Poor’s rating agency has reduced French Polynesia’s credit rating to BB+: “We have needs, it’s true, of this loan from the French state, but not under any conditions.”
This loan would supplement an existing infrastructure agreement for the French state to contribute 30 percent of funds for joint projects with the government in French Polynesia, worth 22 million Euros in 2013.
While the tourism industry picked up slightly in the last two years, overall employment in the sector is declining after a number of major hotels have closed in recent years. This fall is also related to the reduction in air travel services (down by 31 percent between 2007 and 2012).
Air Tahiti Nui posted losses of 8.7 billion CFP (US$100 million) over the last four years. Last November, the airline renewed its management team and purchased a new ATR 42-600 aircraft worth 1.4 billion CFP, in an effort to boost business. This was combined with lobbying by the Flosse administration to open new flights from Beijing and Hawai’i to increase tourist arrivals.
The territory’s external trade deficit remains high (between 125-150 billion CFP a year) and France continues to be French Polynesia’s main trade partner.
Vanuatu has expanded economic ties with New Caledonia and Fiji is seeking new opportunities for exports in the French Pacific, but trade with Forum member countries are still relatively limited, in spite of closer relations between the French Pacific dependencies and the independent nations of the region.
The IEOM notes: “Exchanges between New Caledonia and French Polynesia and other small Pacific islands economies are very limited, whether in terms of goods, services or financial transactions. In terms of both revenue and expenses, the flow of current transactions between the two French regions and their small ‘neighbours’ represents less than one percent of the total of this flow.”
With an ageing population, limited private sector employment and large numbers of French and local public servants, French Polynesia’s social security fund, the Régime de Solidarité de la Polynésie Française (RSPF), is in deficit.
The population of French Polynesia has grown to 268,207, with three quarters living on the two main islands—Tahiti and Moorea.
Within Tahiti itself, people are moving from central Papeete to outer suburbs and towns like Punaauia, with the capital losing 13,000 residents over five years. In the same period, French Polynesia has lost 7,700 residents overall, reflecting the out-migration of other Polynesian nations across the region.
United Nations re-inscription
In spite of these economic woes, French Polynesia’s political relations with France continue to be the focus of debate.
In 2011, the French Polynesian Assembly narrowly voted for the first time to support Temaru’s call for UN re-inscription. A legal challenge to the Assembly vote failed at the Administrative Tribunal of Papeete in early 2012.
This opened the way for more active diplomacy by Forum Islands Countries. Fiji and Papua New Guinea successfully lobbied the September 2012 Non-Aligned Movement summit in Teheran to support French Polynesia’s re-inscription. Four islands countries raised the issue in their speeches to the UN General Assembly the same month, even though Australia and New Zealand had blocked the Forum’s consensus on support for re-inscription. In early 2013, Solomon Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu lodged a resolution for re-inscription before the United Nations.
In a historic decision on May 17, 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution to re-inscribe French Polynesia on the UN list of non-self-governing territories. The resolution was adopted by the 193-member Assembly without a vote. France’s ambassador boycotted the session and Britain, the United States, Germany and the Netherlands all disassociated themselves from the consensus vote.
“This resolution is a flagrant interference,” said the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “with a complete absence of respect for the democratic choice of French Polynesians and a hijacking of the decolonisation principles established by the United Nations.”
In the aftermath of the UN resolution, Flosse moved to pre-empt any further debate about options and timetables for self-determination by calling for an immediate referendum on independence. He hoped that a quick vote would overwhelm the UPLD, which must rally a population fearful that France would abandon them, politically and financially, after independence.
In contrast, the UPLD opposes any referendum without international participation. Temaru lobbied the UN Fourth Committee in New York last October, stating: “Any referendum must be based on UN practice and principles, and the question of voting rights must be resolved with the electorate limited to indigenous Maohi and long-term residents. Any vote should be preceded by a lengthy transition, with information in local languages about all options and a timetable for the transfer of authority.”
At last year’s Pacific Islands Forum, President Flosse told ISLANDS BUSINESS: “If there is a referendum on self-determination, Oscar is certain to be in the minority, to be beaten. I would be certain to win a referendum on a country in association with France—note that I didn’t say ‘a freely associated state’ but rather ‘a country’, because a state is independent. When I speak of an associated country, it’s within Article 74 of the French Constitution.”
France’s Ambassador to the South Pacific Hadelin de la Tour du Pin also stressed his belief that French Polynesians are fearful of independence: “The people there are not idiots, they are living through a grave economic crisis. It’s not Chinese assistance or Australian aid or the World Bank that will put them back on their feet, it’s France. The people of French Polynesia know this very well and they showed this very clearly in June 2012 when they voted for three deputies for the French National Assembly and all three were from the party of Mr. Gaston Flosse.”
France, however, has rejected Flosse’s call for an immediate referendum. During his November 2013 visit to French Polynesia, Overseas Minister Victorin Lurel said: “I am personally persuaded that in the current economic and social situation of French Polynesia, such a consultation would not allow a durable solution to the question of the territory’s future.”
Lurel expressly criticised the United Nations, reaffirming the French government’s opposition to any UN scrutiny of the self-determination process: “France refuses to engage itself in an international process of decolonisation, noting in this regard the respect that it holds for the democratic choice expressed by French Polynesians” (a reference to Flosse’s victory in the May 2013 Assembly elections).
“As the President of the republic has noted before and after this election,” Lurel added, “independence for French Polynesia is not the solution to the problems facing the territory.”
Although the United Nations has little power to influence matters on the ground, the shifting international debate on French Polynesia is causing diplomatic problems for Paris. In December, when the UN General Assembly passed its annual statement on decolonisation, the resolution included a section on French Polynesia for the first time.
In an initiative that angered both the Flosse administration and the French government, the UNGA resolution called for a UN mission to study the environmental, health and social impacts of 30 years of French nuclear testing at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls (See story on the nuclear debate in this edition).
The Flosse government denounced the UN decolonisation resolution, stating: “By obstinately denying the political and democratic reality expressed on two occasions at the polls, the United Nations is showing itself out of tune with the Polynesian people. For this reason, the resolution has no legitimacy and to attempt to impose it would constitute an unacceptable interference in our affairs.”
Bitter relations between governments
Lurel’s visit highlighted the bitter relations between the Flosse government and the UPLD opposition, but also tensions between the UPLD and the Socialist government in Paris.
After years of conservative rule under presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, the pro-independence Tavini Huiraatira aligned itself with the Socialist Party. Before his 2012 election as French President, François Hollande signed a cooperation agreement with the Tavini Huiraatira Party in his role as Secretary General of the Socialist Party.
During 2012, the UPLD coalition soft-pedalled their re-inscription push at the United Nations in order to avoid embarrassing Hollande in the midst of that year’s French presidential elections. Once elected, however, Hollande began to back away from the principles set out in the inter-party accord.
Temaru notes: “Before he was elected president, he was the secretary general of the Socialist Party and together we signed a convention in which he recognised the right to self-determination of the people of Maohi Nui. I understand that once elected president, there is no longer the same political vision.”
Since May 2013, the French government’s outspoken opposition to the UN re-inscription of French Polynesia has soured relations between the UPLD and its former ally in Paris.
In November, Temaru and other UPLD members boycotted Lurel’s address to the local legislature. The opposition leader criticised Flosse and “the complicity of the French state in a series of Mafia-like stories”, adding: “This is a government of convicts, that’s unique in the history of a French collectivity.”
Temaru announced the boycott at a press conference underneath the banner stating: “Down with the Mafia”, a reference to President Flosse’s January 2013 conviction for corruption and trading of favours. Flosse received a five-year prison sentence, an 83,300 Euro fine and five years loss of civic rights in the Office of Postal and Telecommunications (OPT) case, involving the payment of nearly US$2 million of kickbacks from businessman Hubert Haddad to the President.
However, Flosse continues to serve as president while awaiting his appeal, to be heard on June 23 (in a separate case before the Court of Appeal in Paris, Flosse is also seeking to overturn a ruling that he is ineligible to hold public office for a year, after being convicted in a case involving fictitious employment of public servants).
The UPLD has contrasted the perceived double standard where Flosse remains in office despite a number of convictions, while a Socialist Party Minister in Paris, Jerome Cahuzac, resigned in 2013 over allegations of tax fraud, even while protesting his innocence.
UPLD Senator for French Polynesia, Richard Ariihau Tuheiava states: “They apply the values of the Left in France. But they don’t apply the values of the Left in terms of anti-corruption when it happens overseas.”
The Socialist Party is currently considering the creation of formal branches in France’s overseas dependencies, which would compete for votes with the UPLD in French Polynesia. This ongoing tension complicates matters for Tuheiava, who sits with the Socialist group in the French Senate in Paris. The pro-independence senator told the local media in December: “The two signatories to the accord must meet and decide whether to renew it or not.”
Ironically, Lurel’s visit to French Polynesia included a tour of France’s largest construction project, a new prison at Papeari, worth 8 billion CFP (nearly US$100 million).
Debate over autonomy and independence
Temaru has called for an agreement in French Polynesia similar to New Caledonia’s Noumea Accord. Unlike the 1998 political agreement governing the Melanesian nation, the autonomy statutes governing French Polynesia are not entrenched within the French Constitution and do not lead to a vote on self-determination.
While Paris has devolved significant powers to the government in Papeete, the French National Assembly made unilateral revisions to French Polynesia’s organic law in 2007, while any legislative changes for New Caledonia must be agreed between Paris and Noumea.
President Flosse argues that his country has extensive autonomy from Paris, telling ISLANDS BUSINESS: “We are French, it’s true, and we don’t deny our links to France. However, we have great autonomy that means our powers are quite distinct from those in France. While France controls defence, most Pacific countries don’t have a defence force. France controls our court system, but look at the Cook Islands: where does its judges come from? From New Zealand! Where is the independence there?”
“So on economic matters, it’s me who decides! On education, it’s me who decides. On health issues, it’s me who decides,” he said. “I’m the boss when it comes to fiscal matters. In all areas that affect our daily life, I’m independent and don’t have to rely on France.”
From Paris, there is bipartisan opposition to a UN-supervised referendum for French Polynesia. In 2010, conservative President Sarkozy stated that France’s overseas territories “are French and will remain French”, even though Article 53 of the French Constitution grants the right to self-determination for overseas territories. While encouraging greater autonomy in French Polynesia, Sarkozy stressed that there is “one red line that I will never accept should be crossed: that of independence.”
The same policy on French Polynesia is being supported by the governing Socialist Party, even though they support self-determination for New Caledonia under the Noumea Accord. In his November address to the local assembly in Papeete, Overseas Minister Lurel stressed that control over French Polynesia guaranteed France’s presence in the region: “French Polynesia’s cultural importance, its economic importance, its geostrategic importance allows France to be present in the great Pacific basin.”
This commitment to France in the South Pacific is echoed by the Speaker of French Polynesia’s Assembly Edouard Fritch (who is Flosse’s son-in-law). Fritch represents the territory in the National Assembly in Paris, and told the French parliament last November: “We have long defended the French presence in this part of the great ocean and will continue to do so. Even more, we hope that French Polynesia, like New Caledonia, could be an example of harmonious development in this area where there is a strong Anglo-Saxon influence. Why today would you want to sanction those who defend France in this corner of the Pacific Ocean and prefer those who insult France again today?”
Next month’s elections for municipal councils will show the balance of political forces at local level in both New Caledonia and French Polynesia, but the debate about France in the Pacific is being played out at regional level as well.
Ironically, this year, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) is chaired by Victor Tutugoro, the spokesperson of New Caledonia’s FLNKS independence coalition, while the Polynesian Leaders Group is chaired by Flosse, a proud partisan of France in the South Pacific.
Flosse told ISLANDS BUSINESS: “The Polynesian Leaders Group has no statute, has no office, no permanent secretariat. I’ve proposed to the leaders that French Polynesia would host the secretariat for this Polynesian grouping, but they’ve asked to let them reflect on the idea.”
The debate on self-determination has important implications for the Pacific Islands Forum. Both New Caledonia and French Polynesia hold associate membership of the Forum and islands governments are debating the future of regional institutions under the Pacific Plan.
Many Pacific governments (especially the MSG members) have supported the right to self-determination for New Caledonia and French Polynesia. But proposals to integrate the three French Pacific dependencies within the Forum, even without full sovereignty, have opened a debate about whether the organisation will be made up of independent nations.
For President Flosse, independence is not the issue: “For a long time, we have asked to be a full member of the Forum and when I intervened at the Forum meeting in Majuro, I asked the leaders whether the question of the country’s sovereignty was the most important issue or whether the countries were from the same Pacific family, which see the same values.
“The institutional status of different countries should not be a roadblock for all of us to come together around the Forum table,” he added. “In my opinion what is most important is that within the Forum, we share the same values, and that’s more important than being independent nations.”
The newly released review of the Pacific Plan by former PNG Prime Minister Mekere Morauta echoes Flosse’s view. The report suggests that Forum leaders should accept New Caledonia and French Polynesia into the Forum family even without achieving full independence: “The point has been made that the distinction between ‘self-determining’ and some other forms of territorial sovereignty in defining eligibility for full membership is flawed in terms of the contemporary requirements and parameters of regionalism.
“The contemporary debate about regionalism has rather less intrinsic association with self-determination.
“Most of the issues debated in contemporary Pacific regionalism (trade and transport, for example) are entirely within the mandate of even the non-self-determining territories to resolve, and regionalism would be better served by fully including, not excluding, such territories in the debate and in its implementation.
By Nic Maclellan