RAROTONGA – In a far flung corner of the South Pacific a secessionist movement is stirring with its protagonists preparing for a major battle looming half a world away. And if Oscar Manutahi Temaru gets his way French Polynesia could one day become the world’s newest country.
Temaru has fought a 35-year campaign for independence and indigenous control of his country in a quiet, non-violent but calculated manner that has been largely ignored by the rest of the world.
However, the world is starting to take notice. Temaru is taking his fight to New York and staking his country’s claim in the United Nations General Assembly where he is drumming up support from the world leaders for recognition of French Polynesia’s right to self-government.
Paris is bristling at the thought of bidding farewell to the last vestiges of its colonial past, in particular to a group of idyllic, tropical islands that have served France well as an up-market retirement home for its citizens hoping to make ends meet on a state-pension.
French missionaries began arriving in these islands during the 1830′s, sparking a series of rebellions and decades of gunboat diplomacy that ended in 1880 with France annexing French Polynesia as a colony.
France labeled French Polynesia an “overseas country inside the Republic,” endowing it with some autonomy including authority over health, town planning and the environment, while Paris continues to control its justice, education, security, public order, currency, defense and foreign policy.
An unassuming Temaru has been careful not to position himself and his campaign against the French and has been supportive of French President Francois Hollande, calling him a “friend” and a “democrat in the best possible way.”
Hollande is seen as the lesser of two difficulties.
Earlier this year, then President Nicolas Sarkozy irked the Polynesian leader with five terms as president under his belt by telling reporters that Temaru’s plea for sovereignty was “no urgent matter.”
But for Temaru the immediate priority is getting French Polynesia back on the UN List of Non Self Governing Territories, which for islanders is effectively telling the world that politically, places like Tahiti are effectively a remnant of an antiquated neo-imperial empire.