• Indigenous peoples in Mā'ohi Nui (French Polynesia)

    Indigenous peoples in Mā'ohi Nui (French Polynesia)

    Mā'ohi Nui (French Polynesia) is a former colony of France. Although France has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Mā'ohi Nui’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.

Indigenous World 2020: French Polynesia

A former French colony, French Polynesia has since 2004 been an Overseas French Territory (Collectivité d’Outre-mer) of 277,000 inhabitants (around 80% of whom are Polynesian)1 with relative political autonomy within the French Republic through its own local institutions: the government and the Assembly of French Polynesia. Despite the recovery of economic growth and increased tourism in the last three years, social equality has declined. Surveys conducted by the French Polynesian Statistics Institute – the 2015 Family Budget survey in particular – show that income inequality is greater in French Polynesia than in metropolitan France. This can be explained largely by the “very poor redistribution effort of the Polynesian tax system”,2 i.e. the lack of income tax. In 2015, a fifth of the Polynesian population was living below the poverty line.3

A bipolarisation of political life has long characterised French Polynesia with, on the one hand, Tavini Huiraatira – the pro-independence party led by Oscar Temaru and, on the other, Gaston Flosse’s pro-autonomy party Tahoera’a Huiraatira – which advocates remaining within the republic. A succession crisis within Tahoera’a in 2016 following the bar on Gaston Flosse running for office resulted in the creation of a third political party, Tapura Huiraatira. This pro-autonomy party was founded in 2016 by Edouard Fritch, president of French Polynesia since September 2014 and who was re-elected in the April-May 2018 elections. During the May 2019 European elections, Edouard Fritch’s list gained 43.3% of the vote and Gaston Flosse’s 9.4%, with the pro-independence party refusing to take part.4 Despite the high (77%) abstention rate, these results confirm the marginalisation of Gaston Flosse’s party. Nonetheless Flosse’s party wishes to stand in the March 2020 local elections as he will by then be eligible to run. These electoral results are regularly raised by Tapura’s elected members to remind both the French representatives and those at the UN that while these elections do not have the standing of a self-determination referendum, they do highlight the weak support in French Polynesia for independence.

The UN and the right to self-determination

French Polynesia has been on the UN’s list of Non-Self-Governing Territories since May 2013. While opponents of French Polynesia’s re-listing see this as an implicit demand for independence, its supporters note that the aim of this action is to organise a referendum on self-determination that will offer the possibility of becoming a French department, gaining independence or becoming an associated state. The French State considers “the Polynesian issue” an internal matter and has therefore thus far not cooperated with the UN’s Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonisation Committee).

In October 2019, Edouard Fritch formally demanded the removal of French Polynesia from the list of non-self-governing territories: “Our victory confirms that the population does not wish to change French Polynesia’s institutional framework”.5 For his part, Teva Rohfritsch, Vice President of French Polynesia, considered that “the French presence gives us a chance to face up to the challenges posed by our oceanic location, our isolation and our scattering in small islands across an area as vast as Europe”.6 These statements have been made in the context of the preparations for a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron in April 2020, during which he will be holding an international summit on climate change in Oceania. For their part, representatives of Tavini and of the mā’ohi Protestant Church (EPM) recalled the French State’s failure to take responsibility for the social and health consequences of nuclear testing in French Polynesia.7 They also lamented the fact that this re-listing had had no effect due to the French State’s refusal to cooperate. Richard Tuheiava, Tavini member of the French Polynesian Assembly, thus called for a real programme of work to enable the start of a decolonisation process.8

On December 13, 2019, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a new resolution confirming the inclusion of French Polynesia on the list of non-self-governing territories where it reaffirms the inalienable right of the people to self-determination.9 It asks France  to cooperate without reserve in the work of the special committee, to guarantee the permanent sovereignty of the people of French Polynesia over its natural resources and to inform the UN “of all new developments on the environmental, ecological, health and other nuclear tests for 30 years”.10

Nuclear testing 25 years on

Nuclear testing and its social, environmental and negative health consequences was once again at the top of French Polynesia’s political news. The discussions focused on the consequences of Polynesian Senator Lana Tetuanui’s legislative amendment of December 2018.11,12 The nuclear testing victims’ associations are worried that reintroducing a minimum exposure principle as a criterion for the admissibility of cases will make the compensation procedures extremely difficult.

In November 2019, Alain Christnacht, President of the Nuclear Testing Victims Compensation Committee (CIVEN) visited French Polynesia with a delegation. He recalled that the minimum exposure principle was not an absolute criterion and conducted an assessment of the compensation procedures: while only 11 requests for compensation were favourably received over the 2012 to 2017 period, this rose to 110 cases between 2018 and 2019.13 This progress did not satisfy the nuclear test victims’ association, however. In addition to the high number of cases still being rejected, the association noted the procedural delays that mean that some cases are now having to be initiated by the children of the deceased. The Moruroa e Tatou association, which has with EPM support been working on recognising nuclear test victims since 2001, recently lost three of its founding members: John Doom, former secretary general of the mā’ohi Protestant Church and Pacific representative to the World Council of Churches died in December 2016; Bruno Barillot, former Catholic priest of the Diocese of Lyon died in March 2017; and Roland Oldham died in March 2019. On being elected President of EPM in July 2019, Pastor François Pihaatae assessed the actions of the Moruroa e Tatou association, recalling that “Of the 700 files submitted by Moruroa e Tatou and supported by the Church, only twelve have been successful”.14 This illustrates the extent to which recognising the victims of nuclear testing is “a fight that is struggling to gain traction”.

In May 2019, the French Parliament adopted a reform of French Polynesia’s self-governing status, recognising that this region “contributed [to France] when building its nuclear dissuasion capacity”.15 The text also specifies that the state “will ensure the upkeep and surveillance of the sites affected” by the testing and “support the economic and structural conversion of French Polynesia following the cessation of nuclear testing.”16 This text has no binding legal or regulatory effect, however. It will therefore not enable better compensation of victims. In particular, Taaroanui Maraea, President of the mā’ohi Protestant Church until July 2019, commented that the term “contribution” was an absurdity that gave “the impression of a flagrant revision of history”.17

Nuclear testing memorial

In January 2018, during her visit to French Polynesia, the Overseas Minister Annick Girardin announced the creation of a nuclear testing memorial centre in Papeete, explaining that it was a desire of the Polynesian population given that the local associations had made compensating nuclear testing victims their priority for more than 20 years. In June 2019, the 193 Association (referring to the number of nuclear tests carried out in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996) – chaired by Father Auguste Uebe Carlson – announced that it was withdrawing from the project, considering the memorial centre to be a “State propaganda tool”.18 In November 2019, the Overseas Minister specified that the funding for this centre would be the responsibility of French Polynesia and not the French State. The French State later made the land of a former hotel available in the centre of Papeete.19 Annick Girardin also specified that the State would be involved in deciding the content of the memorial centre. A steering group has been set up to manage progress towards this future centre and, in addition to the state and country-level departments, this group includes the Atomic Energy Commission and the Ministry of the Armed Forces.

This state policy of symbolic and memorial recognition is aimed at smoothing over the nuclear testing and making it a thing of the past. The victims’ associations, for their part, fear a state stranglehold on the memorial centre that will result in the production of a new official history. Yet, as the EPM President recalls, “The health and environmental consequences of nuclear testing are not something that can be relegated to the past. They are something that will remain with us throughout our lifetime and over many generations”. 20

Notes and references

  1. Institut de la statistique de la Polynésie française (ISPF), November 2019, Point Etudes et Bilan de la Polynésie française, No. 1187 Bilan démographique. The last census that mentioned “ethnic” categories was in 1988: “Polynesian and similar” accounted for 80.58%, “Europeans and similar” 13.28% and “Asiatics and similar” 42%.
  2. “ Les inégalités de revenus bien plus fortes au fenua qu’en métropole”. Tahiti Infos, 2 September 2019: https://www.tahiti-infos.com/Les-inegalites-de- revenus-bien-plus-fortes-au-fenua-qu-en-metropole_a184613.html
  3. ; Institut de la Statistique de la Polynésie française (ISPF), 2017, Budget des familles http://www.ispf.pf/bases/enquetes-menages/budget-des- familles-2015/publications
  4. “Rétrospective 2019: une année de politique“. Tahiti Infos, 18 December 2019: https://www.tahiti-infos.com/Retrospective-2019-une-annee-de-politique_html
  5. United Nations General Assembly, Assemblée générale. “Quatrième Commission: le maintien de la Polynésie française et de Gibraltar sur la liste des territoires non autonomes divise délégations et pétitionnaires“. 8 October 2019: https://www.un.org/press/fr/2019/cpsd693.doc.htm
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. “Désinscription contre décolonisation à l’Onu.“. Tahiti Infos, 8 October 2019: https://www.tahiti-infos.com/Desinscription-contre-decolonisation-a-l-ONU_ html
  9. “Les Nations Unies adoptent une nouvelle résolution sur la Polynésie nonautonome“. Polynésie la 1ère, 19 January 2020: https://la1ere.francetvinfo. fr/polynesie/nations-unies-adoptent-nouvelle-resolution-polynesie-non- autonome-791383.html
  10. Ibid
  11. The Indigenous World 2019, French Polynesia (page 246-247). International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). Also available online: https://www.org/en/french-polynesia/3418-iw2019-french-polynesia
  12. Sénat: Journal Officiel De La République Française. Session of 4 December 2018 (verbatim report of debate) (page 17888-17889). Accessed 18 February 2020: http://www.senat.fr/seances/s201812/s20181204/s20181204.pdf Also see “Nucléaire : Moetai Brotherson veut en savoir plus sur le “’nouveau risque négligeable’”. Tahiti Infos, 21 January 2019 https://www.tahiti-infos.com/ Nucleaire-Moetai-Brotherson-veut-en-savoir-plus-sur-le-nouveau-risque-html
  13. “Le président du CIVEN dresse le bilan de sa mission à Tahiti”. Polynésie la 1ère, 29 November 2019: https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/polynesie/tahiti/president-du- civen-dresse-bilan-sa-mission-tahiti-776917.html
  14. “Que l’on nous reconnaisse en tant que peuple mā’ohi” (François Pihaatae)”. Tahiti Infos, 22 July 2019: https://www.tahiti-infos.com/Que-l-on-nous- reconnaisse-en-tant-que-peuple-m%C4%81-ohi-Francois-Pihaatae_a183442. html
  15. “La France reconnaît les conséquences sanitaires de ses essais nucléaires en Polynésie”. Le Monde, 23 May 2019: https://www.lemonde.fr/planete/ article/2019/05/23/la-france-reconnait-le-role-de-la-polynesie-dans-sa- capacite-de-dissuasion-nucleaire_5466122_3244.html
  16. Ibid
  17. ”Nucléaire: ‘Le terme mise à contribution est une absurdité énorme’”. Tahiti Infos, 2 July 2019: https://www.tahiti-infos.com/Nucleaire-Le-terme-mise-a- contribution-est-une-absurdite-enorme-Pasteur-Taaroanui-Maraea_a182748. html
  18. ”L’association 193 se retire du projet du centre de mémoire”. Tahiti Infos, 26 June 2019: https://www.tahiti-infos.com/L-association-193-se-retire-du-projet-du- centre-de-memoire_a182576.html
  19. “Essais nucléaires en Polynésie : Pas de financement de l’État pour le Centre de mémoire, confirme Annick Girardin”. Outre-mer à 360°, 6 Novemeber 2019: http://outremers360.com/politique/essais-nucleaires-en-polynesie-pas-de- financement-de-letat-pour-le-centre-de-memoire-confirme-annick-girardin/
  20. Cit. (17).

Gwendoline Malogne-Fer is a research sociologist with the Maurice Halbwachs Centre (CNRS/EHESS/ENS) in Paris. In 2017 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 migration. Together with Yannick Fer, she has also produced two documentaries, one on cultural demands within 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 the challenges 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)


This article is part of the 34th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is from the Peruvian Amazon inside the Wampis territory, taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2020 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



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

For media inquiries click here

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

 instagram social icon facebook_social_icon.png   youtuble_logo_icon.png  linkedin_social_icon.png twitter-x-icon.png 

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand