• Indigenous peoples in French Polynesia

    Indigenous peoples in French Polynesia

    French Polynesia is a former colony of France. Although France has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, French Polynesia’s indigenous population are struggling with issues such as recognition of the Polynesian languages, compensation for social and health consequences from French nuclear tests, and natural resource exploitation.
  • Peoples

    1988: The last census that mentioned “ethnic” categories. “Polynesians and similar” accounted for 80.58 per cent
  • Rights

    2007: France adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Access to justice

    7 victims have been compensated for nuclear tests, in contrast to the 1,043 cases submitted in 2016

Indigenous World 2019: French Polynesia

A former French colony, French Polynesia became an Overseas Collectivity (Collectivité d’Outre-mer) in 2004, with approximately 275,000 inhabitants (around 80% of whom are Indigenous Polynesian).1

As a collectivity, it enjoys relative political autonomy within the French Republic through its own local institutions: The Government and the Assembly of French Polynesia. Social inequalities have been severely exacerbated by the economic crisis that has afflicted French Polynesia since the turn of the millennium. In 2015, one in every five households lived below the poverty line.2 Despite the recovery of the tourist sector starting in 2017, the Minister for Overseas considers the collectivity’s economy as “fragile,” citing the kind of jobs which are available (cleaners or security guards, bar staff, receptionists, etc.), the fact that “the rate of employment remains stable at a low level” 3 and the high levels of emigration among 18 to 25-year-olds: one in 10 leave the Territory every year.4

Three large political parties have characterised local political life since 2016: Tavini Huiraatira, a pro-independence party led by Oscar Temaru; Gaston Flosse’s Tahoera’a Huiraatira, a pro-autonomy party which is in principle in favour of maintaining French Polynesia within the French Republic; and, following a split in this latter group, the Tapura Huiraatira. This pro-autonomy breakaway party was set up in 2016 by Edouard Fritch, who has been the French Polynesian President since September 2014, when he replaced the now ineligible Gaston Flosse.

2018 was marked by territorial elections, debates within the UN on the right to self-determination, the nuclear issue and the related lawsuit on compensation for victims. Forty years after his death, the father of Tahitian nationalism, Pouvanaa a Oopa, was finally rehabilitated.

Territorial elections

Set against a backdrop of a war of succession within the pro-autonomy family of political parties, the founding of Tapura Huiraatira enabled Edouard Fritch to establish a new majority in the French Polynesian Assembly and win re-election as the President of French Polynesia in May 2018. During the territorial elections of April/May 2018, the three parties: Tavini, Tahoera’a and Tapura, obtained 23.12%, 27.70% and 49.18% of the vote.5 Tapura now holds 38 of the 57 seats in the French Polynesian Assembly, presided over by Gaston Tong Sang, mayor of Bora Bora. These electoral results have been vaunted by Tapura’s elected representatives as a sign to the French representatives and the UN that even though these elections did not have the status of a self-determination referendum, they clearly underscored the poor performance of pro-independence candidates. That being said, the two parties have never clarified the deep differences between the pro-autonomists, especially now that Gaston Flosse is more or less constantly advocating for an “associated State” – status for French Polynesia.

The UN and the right to self-determination

French Polynesia has been on the UN List of Non-Self-Governing Territories since May 2013. While opponents of this re-listing see French Polynesia’s inclusion as an implicit demand for independence, its supporters note that this inclusion should go further, and should culminate in a referendum on self-determination that would offer the option to become a French department, to gain independence or to become an associated State. The French state considers “the French Polynesian issue” an internal matter and has thus far refused to cooperate with the UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee, which is responsible for decolonisation issues. On the 12 October 2018, during government question time, Annick Girardin, new Minister for Overseas since Emmanuel Macron’s election in May 2017, explained the “empty chair policy” in relation to its refusal to participate in the Fourth Committee as follows: “The situation of Polynesia does not justify its place on the list of non-self-governing territories. This is why the French representatives do not participate in these meetings”.6 This has not prevented the French state from putting pressure on the Committee to remove paragraph 11, which calls on it to report back to the General Assembly on economic and other activities which affect the interests of the peoples of the Non-Self-Governing Territories”, including the consequences of nuclear testing.7 Although the French state is refusing to participate in the work of the Committee, the pro-autonomy Tapura party has participated since October 2016, thus providing an alternative voice to those of the pro-independence movement and the representatives of nuclear test victims’ associations at the UN. As in the previous year, the October 2018 discussions focused on the reality of French Polynesia’s actual autonomous status within the French Republic (see The Indigenous World 2018). Edouard Fritch considers “French Polynesia […] an autonomous country, freely and democratically governed”, while representatives of Tavini and supportive/like-minded Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have, for their part, regretted the absence of French state representatives at the UN. They also criticise the form of “colonialism by consent” that they associate with the overly “accommodating” leaders (of Tapura) in relation to the French state.8

The discussions on institutional reform that are taking place within the National Assembly and Senate at the behest of the President of the French  Republic,  Mr.  Emmanuel  Macron,  underline  this  variable geometric understanding of French Polynesia’s autonomy. The call for a reduction of one-third of deputies and senators is to be applied to the whole of France, including Overseas Territories, despite French Polynesian representatives arguing that the specific features of French Polynesia (remoteness and geographic dispersion of the population) mean that this reduction in Polynesians elected to represent their territory nationally is inappropriate.9 In response, Annick Girardin expressed her belief that some principles cannot form the object of a territorial exemption.10

It was also at the meeting of the UN Fourth Committee that the leader of the pro-independence party, Oscar Temaru, announced that on 2 October 2018 he had lodged a complaint against France with the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. He explained that “the aim of this lawsuit is to bring all living Presidents of France since nuclear testing began in our country to account”.11 Annick Girardin reacted by denouncing “the use of international courts for local political purposes”. 12 It should be noted that Oscar Temaru was later declared ineligible for one year by the State Council on the 26th of October 2018, following a report from the National Campaign Accounts and Political Financing Commission (CNCCFP). 

Nuclear testing 20 years on

Nuclear testing and its health, social and environmental consequences was once again at the top of Polynesia’s political news. In January 2018, during her visit to French Polynesia, the French Overseas Minister, Annick Girardin, announced the forthcoming establishment of a memorial centre in Papeete, specifying that it had been requested by the Polynesian people. In actual fact, compensation for nuclear test victims has been at the heart of the local associations’ concerns for more than 20 years and has stood as a higher priority which has not been resolved. The issue of France’s claim that the nuclear tests conducted in French Polynesia were of a (non)-hazardous nature and did not incur risks has been raised on multiple occasions. In June 2018, the French Armed Forces inaugurated a new system (at a global cost of some 105 million euro) aimed at preventing the risk of the Moruroa atoll collapsing (and with it the distribution of radioactive matter). The project seeks to use a network of underground motion sensors to monitor the atoll.13 Edouard Fritch, the pro-autonomy president of French Polynesia, recognised for the first time during a debate in the French Polynesian Assembly on the 15 November 2018 that he had lied with regard to the safety of the nuclear tests.

I am not surprised I am considered a liar when, for 30 years, we have lied to this population saying that the tests were clean: we lied, I was a part of that group.14

While this admittance of guilt was intended to highlight a change in direction on the part of a new and concerned government, undertaking to “repair what has been done to this country” with funding from the French state, it has also contributed to a feeling of perplexity and even distrust of politicians who seem tempted to say one thing and mean another. Brother Maxime, from the 193 Association which represents the victims of nuclear tests, thus questions the honesty of Edouard Fritch’s statements to the UN where he still defends the state’s position regarding the denial of the 4th commission’s relevance regarding item 11, “and we can but wonder if there are not some untruths in there”.15

The lawsuit for victim compensation

The numerous difficulties in obtaining compensation for the nuclear test victims, despite this being established in the Morin Law of January 2010, have still not been overcome (see The Indigenous World 2018). Lana Tetuanui (Tapura member), Senator and Chair of the Extra-Parliamentary Commission for monitoring victim compensation thus reminded the UN that this law “was too complex and unsatisfactory and that the compensation system was not conclusive”.16 And yet, in February 2017, the National Assembly voted to eliminate the “negligible risk” contained in the Morin Law, which had been presented as leading to better recognition and compensation for victims.

On 4 December 2018, Senator Lana Tetuanui tabled an amendment meant to facilitate the admissibility of compensation claims by explicitly authorising claimants to complete the steps embarked on when the victim died, and by authorising a re-examination of files that had been rejected before the law was voted through on February 2017, thus easing the rules of admissibility for compensation claims.17

The 2017 activities report of the Committee for Compensation of Victims of Nuclear Testing (CIVEN) highlights another difficulty related to compensating nuclear test victims: the lack of administrative and financial means allocated to this administrative authority, which prevents it from exercising its tasks properly.18

Pouvanaa a Oopa’s innocence finally acknowledged

Pouvanaa a Oopa (1895-1977) is today considered the father of Tahitian nationalism and a pioneer of anti-colonialism. This politician, originally from Huahine (Leeward Islands) was the first Polynesian elected to the Territorial Assembly of French Polynesia and the founder of Rassemblement démocratique des populations tahitiennes (Democratic Rally of the Tahitian People/RDPT) in 1949. During the September 1958 referendum to approve the Constitution of the 5th Republic, the Overseas Territories were also called upon to vote for or against continuing as part of that Republic. Pouvanaa a Oopa encouraged the people to vote “no” in the referendum, i.e. for French Polynesia’s independence. On the 11 October 1958, he was arrested and accused of arson in the town of Papeete. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and 15 years in exile in Metropolitan France at a time when the French state was already considering setting up the experimentation centre in French Polynesia, as evidenced in the work of the historian Jean-Marc Regnault.19 Although pardoned by General de Gaulle in 1968, he was never cleared of this crime. Christine Taubira, then Minister of Justice, referred the case to the Committee for Review of Criminal Procedures in 2014.20 On the 25 October 2018, the Court of Cassation finally overruled the 1959 judgment and declared Pouvanaa a Oopa innocent 40 years after his death.21

Notes and references

  1. The last census that mentioned “ethnic” categories was in 1988: “Polynesians and similar” accounted for 80.58%, “Europeans and similar” 13.28% and “Asians and similar” 42%.
  2. See http://bit.ly/2STh2mO
  3. Insee Première, No. 1721 November 2018. See http://bit.ly/2SLTcJH
  4. Ibidem
  5. Website of the French Polynesian High http://www.polynesie- francaise.pref.gouv.fr/
  6. Government Question No 489 to the Ministry for https://www. nossenateurs.fr/question/15/18G0489
  7. Allocation of items to the Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee) 11. Economic and other activities which affect the interests of the peoples of the Non-Self-Governing Territories [item 60]. See http:// org/en/A/C.4/73/1
  8. Fourth Committee: French Polynesian independence politician announces complaint lodged against France with the ICC for “crimes against humanity”, 9 October 2018. https://www.un.org/press/fr/2018/cpsd663.doc.htm
  9. With the reform, the number of senators would fall from two to one and that of deputies from three to two or from three to one, the final figure not yet having been decided. See http://bit.ly/2SLWcpp
  10. Government Question No 393 to the Ministry for Overseas https://www.fr/question/15/18G0393
  11. La Croix, 10 October 2018, «Que sait-on des victimes des essais nucléaires français?».
  12. Government Question No 489 to the Ministry for Overseas. Response of Ministry of Overseas published in the Senate OJ on 12/10/2018 page 13668 https://www.nossenateurs.fr/question/15/18G0489
  13. See http://bit.ly/2SJhlAR
  14. Le Monde, 16 November 2018. «Essais nucléaires : le président Edouard Fritch reconnaît avoir ‘menti’ aux Polynésiens».
  15. News broadcast on Polynésie Première, “A Look Back”, dated 27 December 2018.
  16. Fourth Committee: French Polynesian independence politician announces complaint lodged against France with the ICC for “crimes against humanity”, 9 October 2018. https://www.un.org/press/fr/2018/cpsd663.doc.htm
  17. Session of 4 December 2018 (verbatim report of debate) on the Senate’s website (pp. 17888-17889) http://bit.ly/2STR17f (PDF); see http://bit.ly/2SLfPhw
  18. See http://bit.ly/2SLMALv
  19. Jean-Marc Régnault, 2014, La France à l’opposé d’elle-même : «Il y a un monde du Pacifique» disait de Gaulle, publisher Api Tahiti
  20. Le Monde, 27 June 2014 «Pouvanaa a Oopa, vers une repentance d’Etat».
  21. Le Monde, 25 October 2018 «L’ancien député polynésien Pouvanaa a Oopa innocenté soixante ans après»

Gwendoline Malogne-Fer is a research sociologist with the Maurice Halbwachs Centre (CNRS/EHESS/ENS) in Paris. In 2007 she published a book based on her sociology thesis entitled Les femmes dans l’Eglise protestante mā’ohi. Religion, genre et pouvoir en Polynésie française («Women in the mā’ohi Protestant Church. Religion, gender and power in French Polynesia”) (Karthala). Her work lies at the intersection between gender studies, the sociology of Protestantism and the anthropology of migrations. Together with Yannick Fer, she has also produced two documentaries, one on cultural demands in the mā’ohi Protestant Church: “Pain ou coco. Moorea et les deux traditions” (Bread or coconut. Moorea and the two traditions) (https://vimeo.com/104943192) and the other on issues of cultural transmission in French Polynesia. «Si je t’oublie Opunohu. Les chemins de la culture à Moorea» (Lest I forget you, Opunohu. Cultural paths in Moorea”) (https://archive.org/details/SiJeToubliepnohu-LesCheminsDeLaCultureMoorea).

About IWGIA

IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. The Indigenous World 2019.

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