Territorial elections were held in French Polynesia on April 16 and 30, during which more than 210,000 voters elected representatives to the 57 seats in the Assembly of French Polynesia.
For the first time since 2004, the pro-independence party, the Tavini Huira’atira, won the triangular second round, accounting for 44.32 percent of the votes cast. In second place was the Tapura Huira’atira list (38.53 percent), led by outgoing President Edouard Fritch, a historic figure of the anti-independence autonomist movement. A third list, A here ia Porinetia (meaning “I love Polynesia”), also autonomist, obtained 17.16 percent of the votes.
The voting system in French Polynesia grants a large majority bonus – 19 seats – to the winning list. The independence party will therefore govern with a comfortable majority of 38 seats out of 57 in the Assembly.
The assembly will now meet on May 12 to elect a new president. Pro-independence leader Moetai Brotherson, currently a member of the French National Assembly, will most likely be elected. A rising figure in the independence movement, and the son-in-law of the historical leader Oscar Temaru, he will undoubtedly be the leading political personality for the next five years in Tahiti.
The political transition in French Polynesia will have national and international consequences. Several months after a controversial referendum in New Caledonia, the legitimacy of French sovereignty in the Pacific Ocean is once again being questioned.
In principle, the French Republic is “one and indivisible.” Nevertheless, Article 53, Paragraph 3 of the French Constitution grants the right to self-determination to all overseas territories, including French Polynesia. Thus, the pro-independence/anti-independence division has long been the major political rift in French Polynesia.
In the legislative elections of 2022, the Tavini had already won the three parliamentary seats representing French Polynesia in the French National Assembly (the legislators are Moetai Brotherson, Tematai le Gayic, and Steve Chailloux, all affiliated with the far-left movement NUPES). The Tavini’s victory in the territorial elections therefore confirms a surge of popularity for the pro-independence faction.
Does this mean that a self-determination referendum, as seen in New Caledonia, is looming in French Polynesia? Probably not.
First, despite their electoral defeat, the anti-independence movements remain the majority. Indeed, the Tapura and A here ia Porineti lists, both openly opposed to an independence project, together accounted for nearly 56 percent of the votes. The split within the anti-independence camp stemmed from growing dissatisfaction toward the outgoing government of Edouard Fritch, linked to the management of the COVID-19 crisis and to some public scandals. Thus support for independence is not as strong as the election result might suggest.
In addition, within the independence party itself, there are two different rhetorical arguments. The traditional anti-colonial and sovereigntist discourse is embodied by historic leader Oscar Temaru and Anthony Geros, the future president of the Assembly. Others, like Moetai Brotherson, the future president, have a more temperate position vis-à-vis the French state and have argued that gaining independence was not the subject of this election. As the political scientist Sémir Al Wardi has argued, the historical pro-independence/anti-independence division is gradually being replaced by a right/left cleavage that did not exist until now.
Lastly, if the Tavini benefited from a significant vote ratio on the island of Tahiti, four out of the five archipelagos in French Polynesia (Marquises, Australes, Tuamotu, Gambier) voted mainly for the Tapura. That specific political geography needs to be taken into account over the coming years, particularly around the thorny subject of decentralization in French Polynesia. Most of the subsidies from France transit through Tahiti before reaching the remote islands.
The Tavini can, however, count on the support of another political force in power in the French Pacific: the pro-independence government in New Caledonia.
The New Caledonia Factor
French Polynesia and New Caledonia are sociologically very different, but their political statutes have often evolved similarly. For example, both are on the United Nations’ list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.
With two independent governments now in power in both collectivities, this mutual influence will grow stronger. Beyond the ideological proximity, the statutory evolution in New Caledonia will inevitably have an influence on French Polynesia. The Tahitian independence party officially supports the independence of New Caledonia. Some figures, like Roch Wamytam, a major Kanak independence leader, predict that if New Caledonia becomes independent, Polynesia will follow.
The main political argument right now in New Caledonia is the reconsideration of a proper New Caledonian citizenship, different from French nationality. This historical demand of Kanak nationalists would exclude from local votes any person settled in the territory after 1994, which amount to nearly 34,000 people, or 17 percent of the electorate, mainly French metropolitans. In French Polynesia, the Tavini likewise advocates the establishment of a Polynesian citizenship, particularly to protect local employment and land acquisition.
However, the two French overseas collectivities are not identical. Some attributes of sovereignty are recognized without difficulty in French Polynesia – and have been for a long time – such as the flag, the anthem, and the language, while in New Caledonia this gives rise to heated debates. The relationship with the French state is much more cordial in French Polynesia than it is in New Caledonia; multiculturalism is also much more a reality in Papeete than it is in Noumea.
Still, there is no doubt that the implementation of certain decisions of the new independent government program will arouse tensions in Tahiti, and also in Paris.
Implications for the French Indo-Pacific Strategy
Since 2018, France’s President Emmanuel Macron has formalized a strategy for the French Indo-Pacific, to legitimize and enhance French assets in the region. The exercise of sovereignty in the overseas collectivities of the Indo-Pacific is a central component of the new narrative implemented by the state.
French Polynesia is a major element of France’s strategic mapping. With nearly 4.8 million square kilometers of exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the 118 islands of French Polynesia confer almost 50 percent of the French EEZ, the second largest in the world. The defeat of Fritch, a long-time supporter of Macron, is therefore not good news for the Elysée. Worse, the predicted next president, Moetai Brotherson, linked to far left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon , has often expressed skepticism about the French Indo-Pacific strategy, saying “We don’t want to be just pawns on the chess game of other people.”
It is the same story with the Kanak separatists in New Caledonia. “We no longer want to be the stooges of ‘France Pacific’ and the nebulous Indo-Pacific axis,” declared Daniel Goa, spokesperson for the FLNKS, the territory’s major pro-independence party.
Less than two years after being excluded from the AUKUS alliance by its American and Australian partners, France’s position in the Pacific is now seemingly being weakened from the inside.
In an era where the China-U.S. rivalry structures and polarizes all international relations in the region, it is interesting to note that the French overseas collectivities of the Pacific Ocean are attracting growing interest. With that in mind, it’s worth keeping a close eye on how Washington and Beijing interact with the new pro-independence government.
On September 29, 2022, when the United States organized a Pacific Islands countries summit in Washington, it invited President Louis Mapou of New Caledonia, and outgoing President Fritch of French Polynesia. Not a single French official attended the meeting. This caused some disappointment in Paris, as international relations normally fall within the competency of the state.
Now U.S. President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit Papua New Guinea in a few weeks, where he will meet with chief executives of 18 Pacific Island countries. Will Moetai Brotherson be invited? Will any French delegation take part? These are questions to be monitored closely for anyone interested in France’s future position in the Indo-Pacific.