• 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.

The Indigenous World 2021: French Polynesia

A former French colony, French Polynesia has been an Overseas Collectivity of France since 2004. It comprises 278,000 inhabitants, some 80% of whom are Polynesian,[1] and has relative political autonomy within the French Republic through its own local institutions: the Government and the Assembly of French Polynesia. The demographic profile for 2019 indicates a slowdown in population growth due to a declining birth rate and migration, particularly on the part of young men to pursue their studies in Metropolitan France, together with an aging population.[2] French Polynesia is characterized by increasing social inequality, as highlighted by the Institute of Statistics of French Polynesia (ISPF). Its surveys – particularly the 2015 family budget survey – show that income inequality is higher in French Polynesia than in Metropolitan France. This situation can be explained in large part “by the very poor redistribution efforts of the Polynesian tax system”,[3] i.e. the absence of income tax. One-fifth of the Polynesian population were living below the poverty line in 2015.[4]

A polarization of political life has long characterized French Polynesia with the Tavini Huiraatira pro-independence party led by Oscar Temaru, on the one hand, and the Tahoera'a Huiraatira autonomist party of Gaston Flosse – which advocates maintaining French Polynesia within the Republic – on the other. In 2016, a succession crisis in Tahoera'a, following Gaston Flosse’s ineligibility, led to the creation of a third political party, the Tapura Huiraatira. This autonomist party was created in 2016 by Edouard Fritch, president of French Polynesia since September 2014 and re-elected in the regional elections of April-May 2018. The election in September 2020 of two senators who are members of Tapura Huiraatira – Lana Tetuanui and Teva Rohfritch – confirms the marginalization of Gaston Flosse's party in recent years. Flosse was sentenced to five years of ineligibility for embezzlement of public funds in December 2020 and will therefore not be able to run again in the next elections.[5] These electoral results are regularly raised by the elected representatives of Tapura to remind the French representatives and the UN that even though these elections do not have the value of a referendum on self-determination, they do highlight the low numbers of those in favour of independence.

The UN and the right to self-determination

French Polynesia has been on the UN list of Non-Self-Governing Territories (NSGT) since May 2013. While opponents of re-registration on the UN NSGT list see it as an implicit way of demanding independence, its supporters point out that re-registration should lead to the organization of a referendum on self-determination, giving the possibility of choosing between departmentalization, independence or association (associated state). The French State, which considers “the issue of French Polynesia” to be a domestic matter, had not, until 2019, been cooperating with the Fourth Committee of the UN General Assembly (in charge of decolonization issues), leaving it to Edouard Fritch to solemnly request, in October 2019, the removal of French Polynesia from the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.

However, on 23 October 2020, Nicolas Rivière, France’s Permanent Representative to the UN, intervened for the first time in this committee to ask that this registration be reviewed. He first stressed that the autonomous status of French Polynesia guaranteed democratic elections and that it was:

respectful of the identity, history, culture and specific features of French Polynesia [which] suits the Polynesians, as repeatedly expressed in elections meeting the highest democratic standards” before concluding: “we believe that the inclusion of this territory of the French Republic on the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories was not in line with the democratic choice of the Polynesians and did not take into account France’s offers of dialogue”.[6]

These comments did not strike a chord in French Polynesia, particularly given that the coronavirus epidemic had prevented the Polynesian representatives from participating in these debates. Tavini, through the voice of Richard Tuheiava, nevertheless does believe that this intervention by the French State, after seven years of an “empty chair” policy, constitutes progress on a diplomatic level since it is the first time that the French representative has spoken officially on the Polynesian issue.[7] The representative was nevertheless anxious to distinguish very clearly between the New Caledonian situation and that of French Polynesia.

A year marked by the pandemic

As elsewhere in the world, 2020 was marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, which deeply affected the economic, political, cultural and social life of French Polynesia. The first case of coronavirus in French Polynesia was that of parliamentary representative, Maina Sage, on 10 March 2020 following her return from a parliamentary session in Paris. It was only at the end of July, however, two weeks after the reopening of international airlines, that the spread of the virus accelerated substantially: a festive evening organized by the French military to celebrate the end of a two-month mission in French Polynesia seems to have contributed heavily to the spread of the virus.[8]

The pandemic affected 17,000 people (6% of the overall population) and claimed 114 lives in 2020.[9] Joint management of this health crisis by the High Commissioner, representative of the French State with responsibility for security and the restriction of individual liberties, and the Government of French Polynesia, responsible for health matters, showed the extent to which the raft of measures was modelled, at least initially, on that of Metropolitan France, even though the epidemiological situations were not comparable. French Polynesia thus experienced a first two-month lockdown from 21 March together with the closure of classes, as in Metropolitan France, and then a gradual opening up before the resumption of international air traffic on 15 July.

In contrast, at the end of October, French Polynesia did not opt, like Metropolitan France, for a second lockdown but chose less restrictive measures based on establishing a “curfew”. Edouard Fritch, President of French Polynesia, considered that “a lockdown as we experienced last April (...) would be an economic and social disaster for all Polynesians”.[10] The lockdown and ban on international flights did indeed have considerable economic consequences, especially for the tourism sector, which is one of the most important sectors of the Polynesian economy, and resulted in an estimated 10% fall in GDP over the first six months of the year.[11] The number of tourists decreased by 70% over the same period, leading to the closure of the Pacific Beachcomber group's Intercontinental Hotel in Moorea and, along with this, the loss of 190 jobs.[12]

The Government of French Polynesia did not consider a new lockdown even though the health situation was more worrying than in March, although this was partly due to the fact that the French State did not extend its support mechanisms for individuals and companies to French Polynesia, something that Senator Lana Tetuanui lamented during her intervention in the Senate on 26 November 2020:

When the crisis emerged in Polynesia, we scraped all the funds together to pay for our masks, tests and everything else. A state of emergency was decreed by the State 20,000 kilometres away but we had to take responsibility for the consequences. We had to suffer the consequences of short-time working hours! We haven't asked anyone for anything. Meanwhile, the State boasts of helping us with loans.[13]

In the absence of any economic support from the French State, the Government of French Polynesia was forced to take out an initial loan of 240 million euros from the French Development Agency.[14] On a cultural level, major events such as the Heiva (annual festival of song and dance) were cancelled. In social terms, the ISPF surveys demonstrate that the lockdown measures were experienced differently depending on a family’s housing conditions and Internet access. While a computer and Internet access are essential to be able to work at home and for educational continuity, only 52% of people (and 54% of those in school) had Internet access in 2017.[15] The health crisis has, in fact, only exacerbated the social inequalities in French Polynesia.

Oscar Temaru and the French State

The year 2020 was also marked by a series of actions against Oscar Temaru, independence leader and mayor of Fa’a'a, a town bordering Papeete with a population of 30,000. Oscar Temaru was sentenced in September 2019 to a six-month suspended prison sentence and a fine of 42,000 euros for grants paid by the Faa'a municipality to the radio station Te Reo o Tefana, on suspicion of serving the political interests of the Fa’a'a municipal team, without the content of the radio broadcasts having been examined at any point in the proceedings. Oscar Temaru has appealed this conviction.

Without waiting for a second ruling, the Public Prosecutor, Hervé Leroy, under the authority of the Minister of Justice, ordered a preliminary investigation into the regularity of the jurisdictional protection granted by the Fa'a'a City Council to Oscar Temaru in his capacity as mayor. This protection allows the municipality to cover his legal fees; this is guaranteed by Article L. 2123-34 of the General Code on Local Authorities, which states that “the municipality is required to grant protection to the mayor (...) when the latter is subject to criminal proceedings in connection with acts that are not by nature misconduct detachable from the performance of his or her duties”.

In the context of the same proceedings, 92,000 euros were also seized from the personal account of the mayor of Fa'a'a on 4 June. Having appealed his conviction and with legal proceedings underway, Oscar Temaru has also filed a complaint against the Public Prosecutor for “violation of the presumption of innocence”. He considers that these new measures are a relentless attack by the French State on the representative of the pro-independence party. This case has also elicited reactions from the academic and cultural world in both French Polynesia and Metropolitan France.[16] The Temaru Leroy case was outsourced to Nouméa in New Caledonia because the judges cannot hear a case against the Head of the Public Prosecutor's Office of their own jurisdiction.[17]

Finally, the appeal in the Radio Tefana case was also postponed, as Oscar Temaru's defence lawyers filed a complaint with the Court of Cassation on the grounds of legitimate suspicion against the entire Court of Appeal after noting contact between the President of the Court of Appeals and the Public Prosecutor while the session was adjourned.[18] This case thus raises questions as to the impartial and apolitical functioning of the justice system in French Polynesia.


Gwendoline Malogne-Fer is a sociologist-researcher with the Centre Maurice Halbwachs, (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 sits at the crossroads between gender studies, the sociology of Protestantism and the anthropology of migration. With Yannick Fer, she has also directed two documentary films 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 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. The paths of culture in Moorea] (https://archive.org/details/SiJeToubliepnohu-LesCheminsDeLaCultureMoorea)


This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here



Notes and references 

[1] ISPF.“Point Etudes et Bilan de la Polynésie française, No. 1207 Bilan démographique 2019.” [French Polynesia Studies and Assessments, No. 1207. Demographic profile 2019]. July, 2020. http://www.ispf.pf/docs/default-source/publi-pf-bilans-et-etudes/peb-07-2020-1207-bilan-d%C3%A9mographique-2019.pdf?sfvrsn=4

The last census noting “ethnic” categories dates from 1988: “Polynesians and similar” represented 80.58% of the population, “Europeans and similar” 13.28% and “Asians and similar” 5.42%.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Franc de Ferrière, Jacques. “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?fbclid=IwAR0_EKzio8uW3GgxILRBO74PK_l8txsY9m_ByX9Cp02a0nybQ7SeuNZWtH0

[4] ISPF. “Budget des familles.” 2017.


[5] Le Monde avec AFP. “Gaston Flosse condamné à cinq ans d’inéligibilité pour détournement de fonds publics” [Gaston Flosse sentenced to five years’ ineligibility for embezzlement of public funds]. Le Monde, 11 December, 2020. https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2020/12/11/gaston-flosse-condamne-a-cinq-ans-d-ineligibilite-pour-detournement-de-fonds-publics_6062994_3224.html

[6] Samoyeau, Antoine. “France demande la désinscription de la Polynésie à l’ONU.” [France demands Polynesia's deregistration from the UN]. Tahiti Infos, 6 December, 2020. https://www.tahiti-infos.com/La-France-demande-la-desinscription-de-la-Polynesie-a-l-ONU_a196528.html .

[7] Samoyeau, Antoine. “Le Tavini salue l’instauration du dialogue onusien avec la France. ” [Tavini welcomes the establishment of UN dialogue with France]. Tahiti Infos, 6 December, 2020. https://www.tahiti-infos.com/Le-Tavini-salue-l-instauration-du-dialogue-onusien-avec-la-France_a196529.html

[8] Bienvault, Pierre. “Une soirée basque amère à Tahiti pour les gendarmes de Tarbes.” [A bitter Basque evening in Tahiti for the gendarmes of Tarbes]. La Croix, 15 August, 2020, https://www.la-croix.com/France/soiree-basque-amere-Tahiti-gendarmes-Tarbes-2020-08-15-1201109294

[9] Tahiti Infos. “Aucun décès lié au Covid-19 en Polynésie ce jeudi.” 31 December, 2020.. https://www.tahiti-infos.com/Aucun-deces-lie-au-Covid-19-en-Polynesie-ce-jeudi_a197201.html

[10]Le Parisien avec AFP. “La Polynésie refuse le confinement malgré une contamination massive.” [Polynesia refuses lockdown despite mass infections]. Le Parisien, 31 October, 2020. https://www.leparisien.fr/societe/coronavirus-la-polynesie-refuse-le-confinement-malgre-une-contamination-massive-31-10-2020-8405862.php#:~:text=La%20Polyn%C3%A9sie%20fran%C3%A7aise%20ne%20referme,baisse%20du%20PIB%20de%2010%20%25.

[11] Ibid.

[12]Polynésie  la 1ère. “Fermeture de l'Intercontinental Moorea confirmée : 190 personnes sont licenciées.”  France tv info, 28 May, 2020. https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/polynesie/moorea/fermeture-intercontinental-moorea-confirmee-190-personnes-sont-licenciees-837360.html

[13] Sénat. “Projet de Loi de Finances pour 2021 n° 2020-1721. ” Interventions de Mme Lana TETUANUI, 26 November, 2020. https://www.senat.fr/interventions/tetuanui_lana14275y/tetuanui_lana14275y_seance20201126.html

[14] Leyral, Mike. “En Polynésie française, le coronavirus s’est plus diffusé en une semaine qu’un cinq mois. ” [In French Polynesia, the coronavirus has spread more in one week than in five months]. Le Monde, 13 August, 2020. https://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2020/08/13/en-polynesie-le-coronavirus-s-est-plus-diffuse-en-une-semaine-qu-en-cinq-mois_6048867_3244.html#:~:text=de%20Covid%2D19-,En%20Polyn%C3%A9sie%20fran%C3%A7aise%2C%20le%20coronavirus%20s'est%20plus%20diffus%C

[15] ISPF. “Point Etudes et Bilans de la Polynésie française. Le quotidien des Polynésiens en confinement.” [French Polynesia Studies and Assessments. The daily life of Polynesians in lockdown.] April, 2020. https://www.ispf.pf/docs/default-source/publi-pf-bilans-et-etudes/peb-04-2020-1199-confinement-2020.pdf?sfvrsn=8

[16] Mediapart. “En Polynésie française, à quoi joue l’État?” 16 June, 2020. https://blogs.mediapart.fr/les-invites-de-mediapart/blog/160620/en-polynesie-francaise-quoi-joue-l-etat

[17] Urarii Pambrun, Vaite. “Affaire Temaru Leroy le curieux renvoi.” [Temaru Leroy the curious deferment]. Tahiti Infos, 3 November, 2020. https://www.tahiti-infos.com/Affaire-Temaru-Leroy-le-curieux-renvoi_a195744.html

[18] Samoyeau, Antoine. “Le procès Radio Tefana renvoyé au 15 février.” [Radio Tefana trial postponed to 15 February]. Tahiti Infos, 30 November, 2020. https://www.tahiti-infos.com/Le-proces-Radio-Tefana-renvoye-au-15-fevrier_a196368.html



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