• 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 2023: French Polynesia

The Kingdom of Tahiti became a protectorate under the French colonial project in 1842 and French Polynesia has been an Overseas Collectivity since 2004. It enjoys relative political autonomy within the French Republic through its own local institutions: the Government and Assembly of French Polynesia.

French Polynesia today has a population of 278,000 (of which some 80% are Polynesians).[1],[2] Population figures for 2020 point to a slowdown in population growth due to emigration, a declining birth rate and an ageing population.[3] This Overseas Collectivity is characterized by increasing social inequality, with income inequality higher than in metropolitan France: in 2015, one-fifth of the Polynesian population were living below the poverty line.[4] This situation can be explained in large part “by the very poor redistribution efforts of the Polynesian tax system”,[5] i.e. the absence of income tax. Apart from economic inequalities, French Polynesia is also marked by a multitude of other social inequalities relative to metropolitan France, for example gender-related inequalities, with intra-family sexual violence being statistically much more pronounced[6],[7] and largely the result of inadequate professional support.[8]

French Polynesia has long been characterized by its polarized political life, with the Tavini Huiraatira, an independence party led by Oscar Temaru, on the one hand, and the Tahoera'a Huiraatira, an autonomist party led by Gaston Flosse, on the other. Until 2016, the latter advocated keeping French Polynesia within the Republic but since then has focused on changing its autonomous status to that of an associated state.[9] In 2016, a succession crisis within Tahoera'a, following Flosse being declared ineligible to stand for public office (confirmed by the Court of Cassation in January 2022[10]), led to the creation of a third political party, 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.


 

2022 elections and the political sphere

Since 2016, the decline of Tahoera'a has continued. Renamed Amuitahiraa o te nuna'a Maohi on 29 January 2022, for the first time since 1977 the party lost all its seats in the Territorial Assembly in March[11] following the defection of its last elected members.

Up until 2018, the electoral results were used by the autonomist representatives to remind the French representatives and the UN that, even though these elections were not a referendum on self-determination, they highlighted the poor support enjoyed by the independence party. Nevertheless, Tapura – which in October 2021 declared its support for Emmanuel Macron in the 2022 presidential elections – faced a major electoral setback in the June 2022 national legislative elections.

The three Polynesian constituencies were, for the first time, all won by the independence party, who sit on the left of the political spectrum: Moetai Brotherson, who was elected President of the Overseas Delegation of the National Assembly,[12] Steve Chailloux, and Tematai Le Gayic, the youngest ever French MP.[13] In the Assembly of French Polynesia, these electoral results led to the departure of men and women from Tapura, who now sit as non-attached members.[14] These defections also reveal the internal tensions existing within the political party in the run-up to the next regional elections in April 2023, as Édouard Fritch was given authorization by the State Council to stand for a third political term at the end of the year.[15]

 

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. Proponents recall that re-inscription 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 considers that “the question of French Polynesia” is part of its internal policy and therefore does not cooperate with the Fourth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly in charge of decolonization issues.[16]

During the 77th session of the Fourth Committee of the UN General Assembly, held between September and November 2022, the representatives of the two major political groups expressed their views on the general political and institutional situation of French Polynesia.[17]

On the autonomist side, the Minister of Infrastructure, René Moana Temeharo, recalled the position of the Government of French Polynesia and the French State: the status of autonomy, which allows French Polynesia to favour a strong partnership with France, is desired by the Polynesian population and cannot be compared to a colonial situation. The June 2022 elections won by the pro-independence party should not, in his opinion, be interpreted as a challenge to this autonomous status but rather as a vote against the government’s handling of the pandemic.

On the independentists’ side, the representatives underlined the – at best – slowness and – at worst – inefficiency of the UN bodies in the Polynesian decolonization process. The vice-president of Tavini, Antony Giros, thus recalled that nine years after the re-registration of French Polynesia, the representatives of the French State have still not taken steps to organize a referendum on self-determination. This lack of dialogue is interpreted by Richard Tuheiava as hindrance to the decolonization process since it allows “the ‘accommodating’ elected government and the administering power the opportunity to silently advocate – behind the scenes – for a ‘status quo’ that does not correspond to the three options adopted by the UN General Assembly”.[18] Moreover, the absence of a specific decolonization programme for French Polynesia, coupled with the French State’s power of veto, which can still be exercised in this matter, makes it impossible for Tavini to change the status of Polynesia through UN channels. Richard Tuheiava believes this programme can be implemented without the administering power.

 

The consequences of nuclear testing

The 193 aerial and underground nuclear tests conducted by the French State in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996, with terrible consequences for inhabitants both past and present, still form the object of struggles to obtain compensation for the victims and political recognition of their health consequences.

In 2021, research published in the book “Toxic” – co-authored by Tomas Statius, an investigative journalist, and Sébastien Philippe, a researcher specializing in military nuclear power at Princeton University – highlighted how the French Atomic Energy Commission had minimized the impact of the contamination, in particular that of the 1974 Centaur test, which is said to have reached the island of Tahiti and affected 110,000 inhabitants.[19] At the same time, people suffering from radiation-induced illnesses have had difficulty in establishing a causal link between their illness and the nuclear tests, and therefore in obtaining compensation.

In order to improve the compensation process for victims of nuclear testing – currently governed by the Morin law – and to increase the monitoring of the contaminated atolls of Hao, Moruroa and Fangataufa, the pro-independence deputy Moetai Brotherson tabled a bill with the National Assembly in June 2021.[20] It was rejected but, shortly after, the French government organized a round table at the Élysée Palace in Paris devoted to the health consequences of the nuclear tests. This was not, however, followed up with any important announcements, with the government refusing “to recognize that the State lied” and dismissing “any idea of a pardon from France”.[21]

Visiting French Polynesia a month later, Emmanuel Macron was naturally eagerly awaited on the nuclear issue but he confined himself to acknowledging the nation’s debt to French Polynesia for having allowed it access to atomic weapons,[22] very far removed from the apology and request for forgiveness expected by many Polynesians.

The year 2022 was marked by important anti-nuclear social mobilizations: the demonstration of 2 July 2021 – the anniversary of the first nuclear test – is now an annual event, at the initiative of Tavini, the Protestant mā’ohi church and associations supporting victims of nuclear testing, in particular the main organizer Moruroa e Tatou. All those involved emphasize the distress of families who are struggling to obtain compensation, particularly following the death of the victims, and raising the transgenerational nature of radiation-induced diseases.

In response to the Polynesians’ quest for answers about their nuclear history, in February the French government announced the declassification of archives concerning the activities carried out by the Centre d'expérimentation du Pacifique / Centre for Experimentation in the Pacific (CEP). Thirty-five thousand documents will gradually be declassified, representing 90% of the documents examined and approved for “free communication” by the commission set up by the Ministry of Remembrance and Veterans.[23] This declassification procedure – which is not the first – requires qualification in two respects. First of all, the declassification of a document depends on whether or not it contains so-called “proliferating” information, i.e. information that could help in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. However, it is impossible to verify whether these decisions to open the archives are taken in good faith since this is precisely information to which access is forbidden. Second, documents that have received a favourable opinion but involve national defence secrets and/or the fundamental interests of the State are subject to a 50-year delay before public consultation, and this restricts access to nuclear archives.

Finally, Edouard Fritch travelled to Paris at the end of 2022 and proposed several constitutional changes to the Senate Delegation for Overseas France, including recognition of the “nuclear issue in French Polynesia and its various impacts” in the Constitution.[24] Given the high symbolic and political stakes attached to the nuclear issue, the autonomist leader thus demonstrated that he did not intend to let the independentists be the only ones to take a critical position with regard to the consequences of nuclear testing.

 

2022, the end of the pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected the economic, political, cultural and social life of French Polynesia. The lockdown and ban on international flights had considerable economic consequences, especially for the tourism sector, which is an important part of the Polynesian economy.[25]

There were several signs of improvement in the health situation in 2022. In fact, according to the Polynesian Ministry of Health, the first week of January 2023 showed a 56% decline in coronavirus-related infections, with only 28 cases reported in Tahiti.[26] This significant slowdown in the circulation of the virus has been accompanied by a total lifting of travel restrictions to and from Polynesia since 1 August 2022. This has resulted in a massive return of international tourists, particularly from the United States, which has put great pressure on the capacity of the local hotel system, while tourism from France is following a similar trend, with 15 to 20% more arrivals by air.[27]

This improvement in the Polynesian tourism sector is in line with the strategic planning established by the local government in November 2022 for the next five years,[28] which shows a willingness to consider the ecological, social and cultural impacts of an economic sector that is perceived as a priority for the islands.

 

 

Gwendoline Malogne-Fer is a sociologist working for CERI (Science Po) and associate researcher at the Maurice Halbwachs Centre (CNRS/EHESS/ENS) in Paris. In 2007 she published a book on her sociology thesis entitled Les femmes dans l’Église 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 of gender studies, the sociology of Protestantism and the anthropology of migration. With Yannick Fer, she has also directed two documentaries 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] 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]

Jules Gautheron is a doctoral researcher in sociology at the Centre d'Études Sociologiques sur le Droit et les Institutions Pénales (CNRS/Ministry of Justice/UVSQ/CY University) and the Centre Maurice Halbwachs (CNRS/EHESS/ENS). Originally from the island of Ra'iātea, his dissertation focuses on the formation and renewal of the relationship of authority and coercion linking the French State and French Polynesia through the day-to-day actions of local security and justice actors, foremost among them law enforcement and judges. Studied from an ethnographic approach, the issues raised are at the intersection of the sociology of the overseas state, coloniality, security and justice.

 

This article is part of the 37th 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 2023 in full here.

 

 

Notes and references 

[1] Institut de la Statistique de la Polynésie Française (ISPF). “Point Études et Bilans de la Polynésie française, No.1256. Bilan démographique.” June 2021.

[2] The last census noting “ethnic” categories dates from 1988: “Polynesians and similar” accounted for 80.58%, “Europeans and similar” 13.28% and “Asians and similar” 5.42%.

[3] Ibid.

[4] ISPF. “Budget des familles, 2017.” Consulted 14 January 2023, https://www.ispf.pf/publication/id/1865

[5] “Les inégalités de revenus bien plus fortes au fenua qu’en métropole.” Tahiti Infos, 2 September 2019.

[6] Jaspard M., Elizabeth Brown., Dolores Pourette. “Les violences envers les femmes dans le cadre du couple en Polynésie française.” Espace, Populations, Sociétés, 2004-2, pp.325-341.

[7] In 2004, 7% said they had experienced at least one sexual assault before the age of 15 and 7% had experienced spousal violence in the last 12 months.

[8] Hervouet, Lucile. “Qui suis-je pour juger? La production sociale du silence autour des violences sexuelles intrafamiliales en Polynésie française.” Terrains & Travaux, 2022, No.40, pp.67-87.

[9] “Pays associé: Gaston Flosse présente son rêve statutaire.” Tahiti Infos, 10 March 2016.

[10] “En Polynésie, Gaston Flosse définitivement condamné pour détournement de fonds publics.” Le Monde, 12 January 2022.

[11] “Le groupe Tahoera’a Huiraatira n’existe plus à l’Assemblée.” Polynésie la 1ère, 19 March 2022.

[12] Assemblée Nationale, “Délégation aux outre-mer. Délégation parlementaire.” https://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/dyn/16/organes/delegations-comites-offices/dom

[13] “Tematai Le Gayic, 21 ans, élu en Polynésie et plus jeune député de l’histoire de la Ve République.” Le Monde, 22 June 2022.

[14] “Rohfritch, Bouteau et Schyle quittent le Tapura par profonde déception.” Tahiti Infos, 14 September 2022.

[15] “Le Conseil d’État dit ‘oui’ à un troisième mandat d’Édouard Fritch.” Tahiti Infos, 25 October 2022.

[16] For an overview of the self-determination discourse and fourth committee process in the French Polynesia see previous editions of the Indigenous World:

Malogne-Fer, Gwendoline. “The Indigenous World 2019: French Polynesia.” The Indigenous World 2019, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 242–249. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2019, https://www.iwgia.org/en/french-polynesia/3418-iw2019-french-polynesia.html;

Malogne-Fer, Gwendoline. “The Indigenous World 2020: French Polynesia.” The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 606–612. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2020, https://www.iwgia.org/en/french-polynesia/3643-iw-2020-french-polynesia.html;

Malogne-Fer, Gwendoline. “The Indigenous World 2021: French Polynesia.” The Indigenous World 2021, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 599–606. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2021, https://www.iwgia.org/en/french-polynesia/4219-iw-2021-french-polynesia.html;

Malogne-Fer, Gwendoline. “The Indigenous World 2022: French Polynesia.” The Indigenous World 2022, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 592–599. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2022, https://www.iwgia.org/en/french-polynesia/4687-iw-2022-french-polynesia.html

[17] Positions taken from the minutes of the 77th session of the Fourth Committee. “La Quatrième Commission donne le coup d´envoi des auditions de pétitionnaires de plusieurs territoires non autonomes inscrits a son ordre du jour.” 4 October 2022, https://press.un.org/fr/2022/cpsd749.doc.htm

[18] Ibid.

[19] Malogne-Fer, Gwendoline. “The Indigenous World 2022: French Polynesia.”

[20] Draft bill of law aimed at getting France to assume responsibility and reparation for the consequences of French nuclear tests rejected by the National Assembly on 17 June 2021, T.A No.632.

[21] Leyral, Mike. “Une table ronde sur le nucléaire pour déminer les relations entre la France et la Polynésie.” Le Monde, 3 July 2021.

[22] Delpierre, Antoine. “Essais nucléaires en Polynésie française: Emmanuel Macron reconnaît une dette de la France.” TV5 Monde, 28 July 2021, https://information.tv5monde.com/video/essais-nucleaires-en-polynesie-francaise-emmanuel-macron-reconnait-une-dette-de-la-france

[23] “Essais nucléaires en Polynésie française : l’ouverture des archives progresse, sous conditions.” Libération, 04 February 2022.

[24] “Fritch propose d’inscrire le fait nucléaire en Polynésie dans la Constitution.” Tahiti Infos, 21 November 2022.

[25] Malogne-Fer, Gwendoline. “The Indigenous World 2022: French Polynesia.”

 [26]Ministry of Health and Prevention (French Polynesia). “Bulletin épidemiologique hebomadaire Covid-19 et grippe. Polynésie française. No.126” Plateforme Covid-19, 11 January 2023, https://www.service-public.pf/dsp/2023/01/10/chiffres-cles-covid-19-du-09-janvier-2023/

[27] “Le tourisme en Polynésie a ‘‘structurellement changé.’” Tahiti Infos, 17 January 2023.

[28] Ministry of Tourism (French Polynesia). “Fāri’ira’a Manihini 2025. L´accueil qui nous ressemble et nous rassemble. Stratégie de développement touristique en Polynésie française.” https://www.service-public.pf/sdt/strategie-de-developpement-touristique/

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