Iaora Tahiti

by Maria on October 20, 2004

Pop quiz: name a wily old political operator who relies on the French Right to keep him out of jail and in power indefinitely while he out-manoeuvres the opposition and bamboozles the tax-payer.

No, not Jacques Chirac. His buddy Gaston Flosse, aka Papa Flosse, the president-in-waiting of French Polynesia. Chirac’s unbending desire to keep Flosse in power has thrown French Polynesia into a political and institutional crisis, sparking the biggest protests ever seen in Tahiti, and accusations by the French Left of a legal coup d’etat.

French Polynesia is a collection of about 120 islands in the South Pacific, best known for hosting France’s nuclear testing programme till the mid-1990s, Gauguin’s creepy island girl period, and a very popular brand of shower gel. It’s a hybrid ex-colony of France, enjoying subsidies for social and other government programmes and leaving final say on policing and foreign policy to Paris. It’s also ideally placed in the South Pacific, forming a key part of France’s global surveillance network and doubling as an ideal holiday destination for the February school holidays. What it lacks by way of a functioning economy and autonomous political institutions, French Polynesia makes up in strategic importance and days of sunshine.

Gaston Flosse is the leader of French Polynesia’s rightist party, Tahoeraa Huiraatira , which is formally tied to Chirac’s UMP. In June this year, Flosse surprised himself and the opposition by losing a general election by 45% to 55% after almost 20 years in power. He immediately declared the result a fraud, and appealed it to France’s Council of State. Meanwhile, the opposition – who’d won the same number of seats, 27, but formed a coalition with three remaining representatives – elected Oscar Temaru as president.

Temaru is an ‘independantiste’, i.e. he wishes to see an autonomous and independent French Polynesia, but is no extremist – he expects the process to take up to twenty years. He might have been allowed to try his hand at governing the islands, until he announced he would pursue an inquiry into public spending under Flosse over the last five years and publicise the findings.

But Flosse has learnt a trick or two from Chirac during their long association. Liberation, the left-wing newspaper, claims to have a document that shows 50 people with imaginary jobs on the government payroll, from mayors to union leaders, clergymen to sports stars, newspaper hacks to fomer Miss Tahitis. The bill for Flosse’s largesse comes to 1.6 million euros a year, and it all sounds alarmingly redolent of Paris when Chirac was mayor. In 1997, Flosse received a boon from his friend Jacques; the power to dole out subsidies from the French state to Polynesia’s local government bodies. Since then, Flosse has been able to use French taxpayers’ money to reward the faithful and deprive his opponents. And how.

Flosse has been under investigation for corruption several times, but a quiet word in the right ear has generally served to have the inquiries dropped. When he was convicted of accepting bribes in 1999, Flosse appealed, notwithstanding public protest marches calling for his resignation. But Temaru’s investigation threatened to use the power of the state to follow the money all the way to the top. Who knows who might have been implicated?

Last week, after a marathon two-day debate, Flosse won a coalition deputy over to his side to pass a motion of censure against the Temaru’s government and effectively overturn it. Allegations of bribery are being openly bandied about in France, in newspaper headlines and in radio interviews with the Parti Socialiste. And 15,000 Tahitians took to the streets to peacefully protest the over-turning of June’s election result. The Polynesian and French opposition are calling for the state to dissolve parliament and have a new election.

But the Flosse posse are pressing blithely on. Yesterday, their attempt to elect Flosse president was temporarily thwarted when the opposition boycotted parliament, making it impossible to reach quorum. Now Flosse’s party say the vote will take place on Friday when quorum will no longer be needed. Meanwhile, newspapers carrying a critical interview with Temaru were seized and destroyed at Tahiti’s airport, and two companies of CRS riot police have flown in to handle any trouble.

And where is Paris amidst all this? Parotting the government defense of last resort: questioning the government is destructive and disloyal to the state. The minister responsible for the territories, Brigitte Girardin, gave a spirited answer* yesterday in the Assemblee Nationale when asked if the French government would stand by and let the democratic will of the Polynesians be ignored. She said a vote of censure need not trigger an election, and objectors were engaging in ‘illegal manoeuvres’. In a masterful mix of legal reductionism, cheap shots and grandstanding, Girardin managed to blame it all on the socialists who’d written the law in question, and demand that critics cease their shameful attacks on the French state. The upshot of it all is that the Socialists won’t get the inquiry they asked for, and the Polynesians won’t get their election.

Chirac et al seem set to bluster through, hoping the natives don’t insist too strongly on the democracy they were promised. Meanwhile, Flosse will declare himself president, pay off his supporters, declare business as usual, and get set for another few years on the gravy train. Now aged 73, he’ll probably never have to account for the gaping holes in Polynesia’s public finances that the French will continue to pay for.

So was it really worth it? Chirac has risked a civil and political meltdown in one of France’s territories, handed his own opposition a juicy target that recalls the previous failures of the right in Guadeloupe and New Caledonia, and written a blank cheque to an aged and corrupt ruler 10,000 miles from Paris. That’s the price of friendship, I suppose.

* Girardin’s bullish defense of the indefensible reminded me of Harriet Harman’s performance regarding internment of suspect asylum seekers on Question Time last week. Watching clever and sympathetic politicians front for appalling government policies is sickly compelling…



Emmanuel 10.20.04 at 11:21 pm

A very insightful and informative post. And I say that as a French political junkie. Well done.


Emmanuel 10.20.04 at 11:33 pm

A very insightful and informative post. And I say that as a French political junkie. Well done.


Jonathan Edelstein 10.20.04 at 11:45 pm

Nice analysis. My take is here.


Emmanuel 10.21.04 at 12:16 am

Sorry for the double post.

An interesting development is the reaction of French MP Jean-Christophe Lagarde, a member of the (center-right and part of the ruling majority) UDF party. Today, he accused Flosse of “buying” votes from opposition MPs in French Polynesia to stage a “legal coup d’Etat”. He also said that the French governement was “protecting a clan system”. Pretty strong words coming from a supporter of the government.


Maria 10.21.04 at 8:25 am

Thanks all – one thing I was not too clear about was the outcome of the Flosse apeal to the Conseil dEtat. Any info or pointers would be very welcome!


Kenny Easwaran 10.21.04 at 8:34 am

One of my good friends from high school was from Tahiti, and he told me a lot about the corrupt government there last spring. Good to hear that they got voted out, even though it may take some time for the results of that vote to percolate through the system!


Jonathan Edelstein 10.21.04 at 11:25 am

Thanks all – one thing I was not too clear about was the outcome of the Flosse apeal to the Conseil d’Etat.

If you mean the appeal he made after the May election, he lost. In general, he didn’t go quietly, and I’m not exactly surprised that he’s schemed to come back to power ever since. Nor, unfortunately, am I surprised that Chirac is going along with it, and I don’t think it’s only the corruption – opposition to Temaru and the desire for a compliant Polynesian government does play a part.

BTW, what does Flosse do between meals?


Jonathan Edelstein 10.22.04 at 3:32 pm

Surprisingly enough, BTW, the ruling on Flosse’s electoral petition isn’t on the Conseil d’Etat web site (possibly because it was argued outside the court’s regular session). The only Flosse decision they have concerns his election as a French senator.

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