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A Thin Line Between Democracy and Independence in French Polynesia

[All links lead to French-language pages unless indicated otherwise]

On the heels of French Polynesian anti-independence politician Gaston Flosse‘s [en] victory in the islands’ presidential elections earlier this month, the United Nations has adopted a resolution calling on France to grant its territory of French Polynesia [en] full independence.

The UN General Assembly placed French Polynesia [en] on the list of territories that should be decolonized in a resolution passed on May 17, 2013. The resolution had been presented, among others, by three small Pacific states: The Solomon Islands, Nauru, and Tuvalu, and was adopted without a vote by consensus in the absence of France, which boycotted the session after exhausting all political and diplomatic means to prevent the vote.

The listing was brought up to the UN by pro-independence former president Oscar Temaru [en], who was defeated meanwhile, not without some irony, in local presidential elections by now five-time President Flosse [en], who faces ongoing corruption charges.

carte en relief de la Polynésie Française, par Sardon sur Wikimedia Commons, licence GNU

Relief map of French Polynesia, by Sardon on Wikimedia Commons, GNU license

The islands of French Polynesia, which have 274,000 inhabitants, are an overseas country of France endowed with rather broad autonomy, but France retains its sovereign powers, such as public security or international relations. Some interesting maps can be found on the blog Histoire-Geo.

The UN resolution affirms “the inalienable right of the population of French Polynesia to self-determination and independence,” in accordance with the UN Charter and article 73 [en] on non-autonomous territories. It requests the French government “to facilitate rapid progress towards a fair and effective self-determination process” [en] in Polynesia.

Similar resolutions in the past have targeted New Zealand as well as the United Kingdom's ownership of Gibraltar and The Falklands without concrete results, the countries regularly disregarding them.

The French Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a communique through his spokesperson, deplored:

une ingérence flagrante, une absence complète de respect pour les choix démocratiques des Polynésiens, un détournement des objectifs que les Nations unies se sont fixés en matière de décolonisation. (…) Le 21 avril puis le 5 mai, les électeurs polynésiens ont renouvelé, comme tous les cinq ans, leur assemblée territoriale. Ils ont donné une majorité incontestable aux élus favorables à l'actuel statut d'autonomie.

a flagrant interference, a complete lack of respect for the democratic choices of the Polynesians, a diversion from the goals which the United Nations has set in the matter of decolonization. (…) On April 21 and May 5, Polynesian voters re-elected their territorial assembly, as they do every five years. They gave an indisputable majority to those elected who are favorable to the current status of autonomy.

In fact, Flosse's anti-independence party led the second round in the elections for the territorial assembly on May 6, 2013 and won 38 of the 57 seats available.

Flosse, only just settled into the Polynesian presidential chair, hardly minced words when he declared in a broadcast speech:

Nous continuerons à nous élever contre cette décision jusqu’à ce qu’elle soit rapportée. L’ONU a inventé le droit des nations à disposer des peuples contre leur gré. Nous ne voulons pas de dictature chez nous.

We will continue to speak out against this decision until it is reversed. The UN has invented the right of nations to make use of people against their will. We do not want a dictatorship here.

Présidence de Papeete sur wikipédia license CC-BY-3.0

Presidential Office in Papeete by Wikipedia license CC-BY-3.0

On Causeur, a well known french collaborative blogging site, a user stated ironically:

Il semble d’autant plus urgent d’y organiser un « processus équitable et effectif d’autodétermination » que celui-ci a déjà eu lieu en mars dernier. À la question « Souhaitez-vous que les îles Malouines conservent leur statut politique actuel en tant que territoire d’outre-mer du Royaume-Uni ? », les insulaires ont répondu Oui à 99,8%.
Mais peut-être est-ce là une majorité trop faible pour beaucoup d’Etats membres de l’ONU, où un scrutin n’est valide que si le pouvoir en place dépasse la barre des 100% des suffrages exprimés.

It seems all the more urgent to organize a “fair and effective self-determination process” than the one which already took place last March. As to the question ”Would you like the Falkland Islands to keep their current political status as overseas territory of the United Kingdom?” 99.8 percent of the islanders responded Yes. But perhaps that is too narrow a majority for many members of the UN, where a vote is valid only if the government in power receives more than 100 percent of the valid votes.

On social media, the issue was a thorny one, with some Twitter users reminding France that it doesn't always practice what it preaches.

Michel Emka (@EmkaMichel) cited an article from europe-israel.com:

@EmkaMichel: L’arroseur arrosé: La France furieuse après le vote de l’ONU sur la Polynésie française – http://www.europe-israel.org/2013/05/larroseur-arrose-la-france-furieuse-apres-le-vote-de-lonu-sur-la-polynesie-francaise/ …

@EmkaMichel: The hoser hosed: France furious after the UN vote on French Polynesia - http://www.europe-israel.org/2013/05/larroseur-arrose-la-france-furieuse-apres-le-vote-de-lonu-sur-la-polynesie-francaise/ …

Sovereigntist Damien Lempereur (@dlempereur) invoked Palestine:

@dlempereur: La Polynésie française sur la liste des pays à décoloniser selon l'ONU mais bien sûr pas les territoires palestiniens http://www.un.org/fr/decolonization/nonselfgovterritories.shtml …

@dlempereur: French Polynesia on the list of countries to decolonize but of course not the Palestinian territories http://www.un.org/fr/decolonization/nonselfgovterritories.shtml …

La Polynésie - En 5, la Polynésie française

The Polynesian triangle, by Kahuroa on Wikimedia Commons – free reproduction. 5 : French Polynesia

The blog Zone Militaire, on opex360.com, described what is strategically at stake for France in Polynesia:

La Polynésie française apporte au domaine maritime français quelques 5.030.000 km2. Elle donne aussi à la France une position stratégique de premier choix dans le Pacifique, région qui tend à prendre de plus en plus d’importance étant donné qu’autour de cet océan vit près de la moitié de la population mondiale et que presque toutes les grandes puissances y sont présentes. (…) Qui plus est, la Zone économique exclusive (ZEE) de la Polynésie française recèlerait, si l’on en croit les résultats d’une exploration menée en 2010 par une équipe de l’Université de Tokyo, des dépôts offshores de terres rares, indispensables pour l’industrie électronique.

French Polynesia brings some 5,030,000 square kilometers to the French maritime domain. It also gives France a prime strategic position in the Pacific, a region which tends to take on more and more importance given that around this ocean lives almost half the world population and almost all the great powers are present. (…) What’s more, if one believes the results of an exploration carried out in 2010 by a team from the University of Tokyo, the Exclusive Economic Zone [en] (EEZ) of French Polynesia conceals offshore deposits of rare earth metals, indispensable to the electronic industry.

But as this editorial published by Rue 89 explains, the decision to add French Polynesia to the list of countries for decolonization “can be examined in light of the very serious economic, social, and cultural crisis throughout this region, and the difficulty of the state to contribute to its resolution”:

(Sous le gouvernement de l'indépendantiste Temaru) la Polynésie a continué de s’enfoncer non dans la récession, mais dans la dépression économique, compte tenu de son étrange modèle totalement inadapté à la donne économique mondiale actuelle. Nous sommes en effet en présence d’une sorte de Janus, monstre à deux têtes, l’une ultralibérale (absence d’impôt sur le revenu et d’allocations chômage), et l’autre ultradirigiste (secteur public hypertrophié et protectionnisme).

L’Etat (…) a fini par prendre conscience de la gravité de la situation. Mais Paris ne dispose guère de leviers de réforme, compte tenu du statut d’autonomie. (…)

Le paradoxe est que c’est le père du modèle en cause qui a été élu, à la satisfaction semble-t-il de certains milieux économiques persuadés que l’on pouvait revenir au bon vieux temps. Gaston Flosse est conscient de la gravité de la situation : la première mesure qu’il a annoncée est la mise en place de l’assurance chômage. Cet homme intelligent saura-t-il être le Gorbatchev de son propre système ? (…)

(Under the government of the independentist Temaru) Polynesia has continued to sink not into a recession, but rather into the economic depression, owing to its strange model totally unsuited to the current world economic order. We are, in effect, in the presence of a type of Janus, a two-headed monster, one ultraliberal (a lack of income tax and unemployment benefits) and the other ultra-interventionalist (overdeveloped public sector and protectionism).

The State (…) finally came to realize the gravity of the situation. But Paris has barely any leverage for reform, owing to its autonomous status. (…)

The paradox is that it is the father of the model in question who was elected, to the satisfaction it seems of certain economic circles persuaded that one can return to the good old times. Gaston Flosse is aware of the gravity of the situation: the first measure he announced was the implementation of unemployment benefits. Will this intelligent man know how to be the Gorbatchev of his own system? (…)

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