• 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 2022: French Polynesia

A former French colony, French Polynesia has been a French Overseas Collectivity since 2004. It enjoys relative political autonomy within the French Republic through its own local institutions: the Government and the Assembly of French Polynesia. French Polynesia  currently has a population of 278,000, of which some 80% are Polynesian.[1] The demographic balance for 2020 illustrates a slowdown in population growth due to emigration, a decline in the birth rate – the fertility rate for 2020 stood at 1.7 children per woman– and  an ageing population.[2] French Polynesia is characterised by increasing social inequality, as highlighted by the Institute of Statistics of French Polynesia (ISPF). Its surveys – in particular the 2015 family budget survey – show that income inequalities are 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.[4]

French Polynesia has long been characterised by a polarised political life with, on the one hand, the Tavini Huiraatira pro-independence party led by Oscar Temaru and, on the other, the Tahoera'a Huiraatira autonomist party of Gaston Flosse – which advocates maintaining French Polynesia within the French Republic. In 2016, a crisis of succession within Tahoera'a, following Gaston Flosse’s ineligibility to stand,[5] led to the creation of a third political party, the Tapura Huiraatira. This autonomist party was created in 2016 by Édouard Fritch, President of French Polynesia since September 2014 and re-elected in the regional elections of April-May 2018. These electoral results are regularly held up by the elected representatives of Tapura to remind the French representatives or the UN that, even though these elections do not have the weight of a referendum on self-determination, they do emphasise the low voting numbers of those in favour of independence. Tapura – which in October 2021 came out in support of Emmanuel Macron in the 2022 presidential elections– has nevertheless been blighted by resignations of its politicians for some months now, revealing the strong internal tensions within this new political party.[6]

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 see it as an implicit way of demanding independence, its supporters point out that re-registration should lead to the organisation of a referendum on self-determination, giving the possibility of choosing between departmentalisation, independence or association (associated state). The French State, which considers “the French Polynesian issue” to be a domestic matter, had not, until 2019, been cooperating with the UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee, responsible for decolonisation issues, leaving it to Édouard Fritch to solemnly request the removal of French Polynesia from the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories in both October 2019 and October 2020. At the October 2020 meeting, the Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations did, however, intervene in this committee for the first time to ask that this registration be reviewed. This intervention of the French State was interpreted by Tavini as a diplomatic advance after seven years of its “empty chair” policy, given that this was the first time a representative of France had spoken officially on the Polynesian issue.[7]

In October 2021, in the absence of State representatives, Édouard Fritch did not renew his request for de-registration, the process being too difficult to stop.[8] He defended the status of French Polynesia, which enjoys “broad autonomy, including financial autonomy (and) holds the reins of its own socio-economic development.” French Polynesia “does not live in a situation of oppression, nor of predation of its wealth;” it “is not a ‘colony’ that needs to decolonise and nor is independence the only way or the ‘miracle’ that will bring about people’s happiness; the dignity of a people is not necessarily built on independence.”[9] Édouard Fritch also emphasised the French State’s support during the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of medical staff, vaccines and financial support. Members of Tavini, however, noted that joint management of the pandemic by the French State and French Polynesia had illustrated the imbalance in relations between the two and the limits of the territory's autonomy, as Chantal Galenon pointed out: “Every week a press conference is organised by the French High Commissioner, who decides to close the borders or reopen them, or to implement health restrictions, while our local president is nothing but a mouthpiece.”[10] Finally, Carlyle Corbin, Independent Expert to the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonisation, recalled that French Polynesia’s statutory situation does not meet the criterion for a self-governing territory according to the United Nations Charter:

Only a true decolonisation process with follow-up by the United Nations will enable the territory to move towards true autonomy (...). The General Assembly has passed nine resolutions on French Polynesia since 2013. Yet throughout 2021, no information has been forthcoming from the administering power to the Secretary-General, as required by the UN Charter. This lack of cooperation may hinder the decolonisation process.[11]

The consequences of nuclear testing

Recognition of the consequences of nuclear testing and the difficult compensation of victims of that testing, was once again the top political news.[12] The book Toxique. Enquête sur les essais nucléaires français en Polynésie [Toxic: Survey of French nuclear testing in Polynesia], published in March 2021, recalls the dangers of nuclear testing, particularly the atmospheric tests conducted between 1966 and 1974. The two authors, Sébastien Philippe –a researcher specialising in military nuclear energy at Princeton University– and Tomas Statius –a journalist with the investigative media outlet Disclose– in particular concluded, from an analysis of 2,000 pages of documents declassified by the Ministry of Defence in 2013, that the extent of the contamination had been minimised: “Our conclusions point to significant omissions in the CEA's (French Atomic Energy Commission) calculations (...) particularly in the meteorological reports, aimed at reducing the range or direction of the fallout.” In 1974, the Centaur test reached Tahiti, affecting 110,000 inhabitants.[13] Alongside this, people suffering from radiation-induced illnesses are having difficulty in establishing a causal link between their illness and the nuclear tests and thus receiving compensation.

In June 2021, the pro-independence deputy Moetai Brotherson tabled a bill before the National Assembly aimed at improving the compensation process for victims of nuclear testing –currently governed by the Morin law– and increasing the monitoring of the contaminated atolls of Hao, Moruroa and Fangataufa. It was not adopted. Instead, the French government preferred to organise a round table at the Élysée Palace at the end of June 2021 on the health consequences of nuclear testing. This conference, Reko Toka, was organised with the attendance of the Minister of Health, Olivier Véran, and the Minister of the Overseas, Sébastien Lebranchu, but without the elected pro-independence representatives and the two main associations of victims of nuclear testing Moruroa e Tatou and Association 193, who boycotted the conference. No important announcements were forthcoming from this conference, as the Minister Delegate for Remembrance and Veterans Affairs “refused to acknowledge the State’s lies and rejected any idea of a pardon from France.”[14] Despite the failure of this conference, which did not result in any significant progress, Édouard Fritch nonetheless drew two important conclusions: the Director of the CEA’s confirmation that people were irradiated not only on the Tuamotu Islands but also on the Windward Islands, and that the French government was now considering reimbursing the CPS –the local social security organisation– for sums incurred in treating people suffering from radiation-induced illnesses.[15]

The visit of the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, to French Polynesia from 24 to 28 July 2021 was preceded by two large anti-nuclear protests attracting between 2,000 and 4,000 people in Papeete on 2 and 17 July 2021. These demonstrations, organised at the initiative of Tavini, the associations supporting victims of nuclear testing and the Protestant Church of Mā’ohi, highlighted the distress of families who are struggling to obtain reparations when victims have died, and the fact that the trans-generational nature of radiation-induced illnesses now seems to be an issue (meaning they might be transmitted to their children). Long awaited on the issue of nuclear testing, Emmanuel Macron made no apology or request for forgiveness but “took on board” this nuclear past and recognised that: “The Nation owes a debt to French Polynesia. This debt is for having hosted these tests, in particular between 1966 and 1974, which cannot be said to have been clean.”[16] He declared that he wanted the “truth” and “transparency” on the nuclear tests and hoped that the victims would be better compensated, without specifying the practical actions that would be taken. The President’s speech focused on the role that France intends to play in the Pacific in fighting against China’s influence.[17]

A year marked by the pandemic

The year 2021 was marked, as elsewhere in the world, by the COVID-19 pandemic, which severely affected the economic, political, cultural and social life of French Polynesia. There were 43,374 COVID-19-related infections and 636 deaths in 2021. Most of the deaths occurred in August of that year, during which French Polynesia recorded 460 additional[18] deaths and experienced one of the highest rates in the world (2,800 cases per 100,000 population). The explosion of the pandemic can be explained, on the one hand, by the low proportion of people vaccinated –25% of Polynesians had been vaccinated by the start of July 2021– linked in part to a mistrust of institutions and the State. Among the arguments frequently put forward during the anti-vaccine demonstrations is the idea that vaccines are at an “experimental stage”, comparable to nuclear testing, and that the people to be vaccinated are “guinea pigs;” some politicians also share this mistrust.[19] The second reason for the explosion of the pandemic in August 2021 was the delay in implementing further containment measures and the technical difficulties in setting up controls similar to the health pass. Although the epidemic began to worsen from the end of July 2021, the start of the school year was not postponed and no containment measures were brought in until 23 August 2021 (for one month). The explosion of the pandemic led to Taaone Hospital in Tahiti being overwhelmed, forcing health workers onto a “war footing,”[20] with the government of Polynesia requesting human and material reinforcements. The pandemic also had a profound impact on bereaved Polynesian families who were forced to organise hurried and limited funeral ceremonies.[21]

The lockdown and the halting of international flights had considerable economic repercussions, particularly on the tourism sector, which is one of the most important sectors of the Polynesian economy: between July 2020 and June 2021, French Polynesia welcomed only 57,000 tourists, i.e. 65% fewer than over the same period in the previous year.[22] During his visit in July 2021, Emmanuel Macron announced that a CFP 28 billion State-guaranteed loan – via the French Development Agency– would be granted to French Polynesia to help support struggling companies, including the airline Air Tahiti Nui. The health crisis has, in fact, resulted in increased dependence on the French State and greater social inequalities in French Polynesia.[23]

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 lies at the intersection 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 in the Mā’ohi Protestant Church “Pain ou coco. Moorea et les deux traditions” [Bread or Coconut. Moorea and the two traditions] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8XXwda74vo&t=27s) and on the challenges of cultural transmission in French Polynesia “Si je t'oublie Opunohu. Les chemins de la culture à Moorea” [If  I forget you, Opunohu. Paths of Culture in Moorea] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9xp8JY5kmI)


This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] ISPF.”Point Etudes et Bilans de la Polynésie française, N°1256, Bilan démographique 2020." June 2021. https://www.ispf.pf/docs/default-source/publi-pf-bilans-et-etudes/1256-bilan-demographique-2020.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] Tahiti infos du 2 septembre 2019.

[4] ISPF.” Étude Budget des familles. Polynésie française 2015. » October 2017.http://www.ispf.pf/bases/enquetes-menages/budget-des-familles-2015/publications

[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, December 11, 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. “Tempête au Tapura[Storm in Tapura]. Tahiti Infos, October 21, 2021. https://www.tahiti-infos.com/%E2%80%8BTempete-au-Tapura_a204519.html.

These include, in particular, Deputy Nicole Sanquer and Senator Nuihau Laurey, both also members of the French Polynesian Assembly, who left the party in December 2019 and June 2020 respectively.

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

[8] TV news broadcast on Polynesia la 1ere on October 6, 2021.

[9] Nations Unies. “Quatrième Commission: retour des pétitionnaires, venus s’exprimer sur la décolonisation de plusieurs territoires non autonomes.” [Fourth Committee: petitioners return to speak about the decolonisation of several non-self-governing territories]. 6 October 2021. https://www.un.org/press/fr/2021/cpsd730.doc.htm

[10] Samoyeau, Antoine.  “Dialogue de sourds à l’ONU.” [Dialogue of the deaf at the UN]. Tahiti Infos, October 6, 2021. https://www.tahiti-infos.com/Dialogue-de-sourds-a-l-ONU_a204121.html

[11] Samoyeau, Antoine. Tahiti Infos of 6 October 2021 “Dialogue de sourds à l’ONU.” [Dialogue of the deaf at the UN]. Tahiti Infos, October 6, 2021. https://www.tahiti-infos.com/Dialogue-de-sourds-a-l-ONU_a204121.html

[12] Malogne-Fer, Gwendoline. “French Polynesia” in The Indigenous World 2021, edited by Dwayne Mamo. Copenhagen : IWGIA, 2021. https://iwgia.org/en/french-polynesia/4219-iw-2021-french-polynesia.html

[13] Hopquin, Benoît. “Toxique. Enquête sur les essais nucléaires français en Polynésie » : les mensonges de la France dans le Pacifique.” Le Monde, March 6, 2021. https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2021/03/05/toxique-enquete-sur-les-essais-nucleaires-francais-en-polynesie-les-mensonges-de-la-france-dans-le-pacifique_6072003_3232.html

[14] Leyral, Mike. “Une table ronde sur le nucléaire pour déminer les relations entre la France et la Polynésie.” [A round table on nuclear energy to clear relations between France and Polynesia]. Le Monde, July 3, 2021. https://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2021/07/03/une-table-ronde-sur-le-nucleaire-pour-deminer-les-relations-entre-la-france-et-la-polynesie_6086856_3244.html

[15] TV news broadcast on Polynesia la 1ere on July 2, 2021.

[16] TV5MONDE. “Essais nucléaires en Polynésie française: Emmanuel Macron reconnait une ‘dette’ de la France” [Nuclear tests in French Polynesia: Emmanuel Macron recognises France’s debt]. July 28, 2021. https://information.tv5monde.com/video/essais-nucleaires-en-polynesie-francaise-emmanuel-macron-reconnait-une-dette-de-la-france

[17] Le Monde, July 30, 2021.

[18] ISPF.  ”Point Etudes et Bilans de la Polynésie française, N°1277, 460 décès supplémentaires en août 2021. » September 2021. https://www.ispf.pf/docs/default-source/publi-pf-bilans-et-etudes/1277-deces-aout-2021.pdf?sfvrsn=4

[19] La Dépêche de Tahiti. “2500 manifestants à Papeete contre l’obligation vaccinale” [2500 demonstrators in Papeete against compulsory vaccinations]. Facebook, September 18, 2021. https://fr-fr.facebook.com/LaDepecheDeTahiti/posts/6272412972798853

[20] Leyral, Mike “En Polynésie, la triste réalité du tri des malades” [In Polynesia, the sad reality of triaging the sick]. Le Monde, August 24, 2021. http://planete.gaia.free.fr/microbio/virologie/corona/domtom.html#tri

[21] Couturier, Marine. “Covid: Tahiti submergé par le deuil” [Covid Tahiti overwhelmed by grief.] Libération, September 3, 2021, https://www.liberation.fr/societe/sante/deuil-sous-covid-tahiti-submerge-20210902_OPTFZIN4M5GONKXOX43GQNLV2A/?utm_medium=Social&xtor=CS7-51-&utm_source=Twitter#Echobox=1630608108

[22] ISPF. “Points Conjoncture Tourisme, No. 57,  2ème trimestre 2021.” December 2021. https://www.ispf.pf/docs/default-source/tb-tourisme/tb-2021-t2.pdf?sfvrsn=4

[23] ISPF.”Point Etudes et Bilans de la Polynésie française, No. 1199, 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



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