Fighting Fire with Fire


The first round of the French Presidential elections had a distinctly local flavour in the Tahitian capital of Pape’ete. There was traditional food and floral headwear as voters sang, heckled and danced into the night. French Polynesia may be on the other side of the world from France, but the results of the second round of the election on 6 May could have a big impact on local politics here.

This is the first time that former French Polynesian President Oscar Temaru’s pro-independence Tavini Huiraatira (People’s Servant Party) has endorsed a candidate in a French Presidential election. The conservative party is notorious for having close relations with France — former French Polynesian President Gaston Flosse and outgoing French President Jacques Chirac are close friends and political allies and Temaru and his supporters claim that the two had a hand in Temaru’s losing power in both 2004 and 2006 in votes of no confidence in the local parliament.

Now it appears Temaru has decided to fight fire with fire by forging close ties with French Socialist Party candidate Segolene Royal. If Royal wins, she has pledged to work with the French Polynesian Government toward a referendum on independence, to investigate years of alleged corruption under Flosse’s regime, and to make available classified documents on the French nuclear tests between 1966 and 1996.

If she wins, Temaru says the first thing he will be asking for is the dissolution of the Assembly. "That’s what we are fighting for: new elections in this country for new elected members in our Assembly," he told New Matilda. "I think the majority of people in this country support that idea. They know also why we support her. So a vote for [Royal in French Polynesia will be] a vote for the dissolution of local parliament."

And the vote for Royal here on Saturday was significant, at 41.68 per cent. UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy still came out on top with 45.23 per cent, but the margin between the two candidates was much smaller than it was in France, probably due to the extensive, island-to-island campaigning that Temaru and his Party have done on Royal’s behalf over the past months.

A vote for Sarkozy, according to his supporters here in the conservative, pro-autonomy Tahoera’a Huira’atira (People’s Rally for the Republic) Party is a vote for remaining part of the French Republic, for keeping things as they are, and not rocking the boat. The Mayor of Pape’ete, Michel Buillard told New Matilda, "I hope that Sarkozy will win so that we can continue in the same direction that we are going now. We are part of the French people. We have our own identity, we have our own language, but we love French people — and politically, we are French."

"Continuing in the same direction," according to a source within the Temaru camp, involves judicial and administrative corruption, and intimidation of those who investigate it. People are fed up with "mates politics" the source said: "They want a central government that treats the big and small guys equally."

Perhaps France’s biggest legacy in French Polynesia is the nuclear tests it undertook in the outer atolls between 1966 and 1996, which it continues to deny had serious health or environmental impact.

Late last year an Inquiry Commission into French aerial nuclear testing between 1966 and 1974 made public for the first time classified documents of the Defence Ministry which showed that authorities had lied about the risk of radioactive fallout on neighbouring islands.

In its final report the commission denounced the French Government for frustrating its work through legal proceedings, refusing requests for information and intimidation: "After the visits of the Inquiry Commission to [the affected islands of]Tureia and Mangareva, a delegation of the French Defence Ministry went there to put pressure on the municipalities and the population to destroy any compromising traces (old ‘protective buildings’) remaining from the period of the aerial nuclear testing", the commission reported.

Before the elections, the Pape’ete-based Moruroa e Tatou, an association that advocates for former test-site workers, sent a questionnaire to all French Presidential candidates asking them whether they supported a law recognising the health and environmental impacts of nuclear testing; a compensation fund for victims; and a "presumption of origin" clause in relation to certain illnesses.

In the tradition of Chirac, Sarkozy’s response was to deny the nuclear problem is significant. Segolene Royal agreed to all of the demands put forward by the group.

If the French Presidential elections are about — as one punter put it — "defining our relationship with France," French Polynesians seem divided over what that relationship should be.

According to Temaru, if the French Government really wanted French Polynesia to be economically independent, it could be done very easily. "I think they have done all they can to make us dependent," he told New Matilda. "The French Government gives us approximately US$1 billion every year, but half of that money goes to the French State organisations in this country — most of the money goes back to France."

But Vice President of the Tahoera’a Huiraatira party and President of the Assembly, Edouard Fritch, says that French Polynesia would not survive without French assistance. "If Oscar Temaru was overthrown [in 2006]it was principally his own fault, because he never succeed in realising a program for the development of our country — for two years he continued to raise income taxes beyond the limits of the everyday Polynesian," he told NM.

"I think it’s disingenuous to blame France every time for the faults of Oscar Temaru."

The second and final round of polls will be held on May 6.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.