Political rivalries, popular demonstrations, and disruptive electioneering tarnished the chaotic election campaigns of late 2004 and early 2005 in French Polynesia. Political events at the time were easy enough to keep track of, but the underlying political and social forces were not effectively analyzed by the press at the time.

Correcting that lack, Anne-Christine Trémon, who is at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, provides a thorough background to the rivalry between the two bitter political enemies in a recent journal article. The author makes it clear that the issues are far deeper than just political ideology. The political rivalries are based on completely differing conceptions of what the identity of French Polynesians (or Tahitians) should be.

A political crisis in the archipelago began to unfold in October 2004. The decades long, corrupt political administration of Gaston Flosse had been overturned by Oscar Temaru in May that year. The newly elected assembly had 29 seats for Temaru’s party and 28 for Flosse’s. However, on October 9, one of the representatives in Temaru’s party switched sides, which brought Flosse back into power. After a lot of legal wrangling, attempts to negotiate with the French government in Paris, and a huge street demonstration, by-elections in part of the territory in February 2005 returned Temaru to power.

The supporters of the two differing positions either want the territory to remain part of France, in which the political structure would include a considerable measure of self-rule—the Flosse position—or they want French Polynesia to become completely independent, the Temaru argument. French President Chirac’s government supported the perspective of Flosse. As Trémon summarizes the fundamental split, “independence and autonomy are the two poles upon which French Polynesia’s political issues revolve” (p.261).

The author explains the background for the dichotomy. French policies toward their colonial territories have always been ambiguous: a desire to civilize the people, but a countervailing desire to foster their indigeneity. Before World War Two, all the residents of French Polynesia were French nationals, but most were simply considered to be subjects—only some were granted citizenship.

These patterns changed in1945 when France realized that Polynesia was important as a site for its growing nuclear testing program. The Polynesian people became citizens of France at the same time that French laws strengthened rule from Paris. The government decided to ban the Tahitian language from the schools and strengthen attempts to integrate the Polynesians into French society.

But beginning in the 1980s, France changed course once again and started to foster local autonomy in Polynesia. At that time, Gaston Flosse adopted the pro-autonomist position for his party and began his lengthy period of corrupt, autocratic rule.

Political realities began to favor the promotion of native Polynesian cultural practices. The different political factions started to use markers of cultural identity such as the Tahitian language to promote their differing concepts of either an autonomous state within metropolitan France or an independent country outside it. Both sides, particularly the autonomous party of Flosse, organized festivals to promote Polynesian identity, as propaganda for their political positions.

In 1996, France instituted an autonomous status for French Polynesia that gave the elected President more powers. The territory also gained control over its budget, resources, and foreign investments.

But the election of May 2004 that briefly turned Flosse out of office, and the turmoil from October through the following February, reflected more than just errors of judgment on the part of Flosse, and more than just popular resentment toward his autocratic style.

During the tumultuous period of 2004 – 2005, both sides ignored the established political system, and both denied the legitimacy of the other side. It was an institutional crisis, a direct confrontation between the ideology of autonomy and that of independence. The independentists define their world in terms of the Tahitian word Ma’ohi, which roughly means “identity,” and the autonomists prefer to identify with the concept of “ Polynesia.” The Tahitians use Ma’ohi when referring to indigenous manners of speaking, behaving, and making things. It has become a racialist self definition.

Supporters of autonomy react very strongly to the implication that they might belong to the Ma’ohi world. The word in Tahitian, and in the other Polynesian languages, suggests a clear implication of belonging to a distinct world and having a distinct, specifically indigenous, worldview.

Thus, while Temaru came to power within the autonomous structure that Flosse had helped to establish, he wanted the Ma’ohi people to free themselves from that framework. The emblems of his party are not those of a coalition trying to rule a political entity, the author argues: “they are the emblems of a nation aspiring to independence” (p.271). The argument of Temaru’s party, that the flag of French Polynesia should be replaced, is widely shared. Many people feel that the flag symbolizes a partisan position rather than the spirit of their own country.

Trémon makes it clear that both parties favor clear definitions of what it means to be a citizen in French Polynesia, though they differ about how citizenship should be understood. The independentists believe that citizenship should grow out of the Ma’ohi nationality, which would be the primary attribute of a sovereign country. The autonomists see Polynesian citizenship as growing out of the Republic of France, and being subsumed to French nationalité. For the autonomists, a citizen would have to hold French citizenship and would have to have resided in French Polynesia for an unspecified period of time.

The independentists use the concept of indigeneity as a way of proclaiming the end of French colonial rule. The autonomists use indigeneity as a way of perpetuating colonialism. Trémon’s article helps clarify the differing concepts of Tahitian identity, and provides a basis for understanding at least some of the political turbulence in the islands.

Trémon, Anne-Christine. 2006. “Conflicting Autonomist and Independentist Logics in French Polynesia.” Journal of the Polynesian Society 115(3): 259-288