By Elke Larsen
On May 17, the United Nations recognized French Polynesia as a colony by placing it on the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories for the first time since 1947. With this in mind, the United States must begin considering what France’s future role in the Pacific will look like.
The question of French Polynesia’s status is not a cut-and-dry example of France versus the indigenous Maohi. The territory has gained significant autonomy in recent years, but it still faces internal tension between pro-French and pro-independence political factions. The re-inscription onto the UN list is the result of lobbying by the pro-independence party Tavini Huiraatira, led by long-time separatist Oscar Temaru. By 2012, Temaru had gained support for his independence campaign from the local assembly and Protestant Church. International partners, including the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, lobbied on his behalf at the United Nations. Temaru’s political opponent and current president, Gaston Flosse, although an advocate for increased autonomy, has steadfastly supported an enduring role for Paris in French Polynesia’s future.
At first glance, international support for decolonization appears counter-intuitive considering that Polynesians themselves elected the pro-French Flosse on May 5. But Flosse based his campaign primarily on an economic agenda. French Polynesia’s bloated public sector, weak tourist industry, and dependence on French subsidies had already created poor economic conditions when the territory was hard hit by the global recession. The recent election results are an endorsement of Flosse’s economic revitalization program, rather than his political agenda.
France campaigned vehemently against the UN re-inscription for several reasons. First, rejoining the list gives the Maohi more leverage to obtain information about the 193 nuclear tests that France conducted in the area up until 1996. This is a daunting prospect considering recently leaked documents that show the fallout was far worse than previously admitted.
Second, France sees French Polynesia as an important toehold in the booming Asia-Pacific. The territory’s vast exclusive economic zone allows France to potentially take advantage of seabed mining opportunities. All in all, this makes French Polynesia more a valuable and integral part of France than a dependency.
Washington has supported Paris on the issue of French Polynesian independence, even though France’s position contradicts the United Nations’ founding principle of self-determination. This support stems primarily from the fact that France is not only an ally and economic partner across the Atlantic, but a like-minded partner in the Pacific. Additionally, it is hard to deny the clear parallel with the United States’ Pacific dependencies and its nuclear legacy there—a topic that both powers prefer to address without international interference.
For the United States, Maohi independence would mean a shift in regional dynamics. There would be one less “automatic ally” in the region pushing for greater transparency in aid donors, fishing rights, and coordination on humanitarian relief. An independent French Polynesia would also likely add a strong voice to growing pressure for the United States to address its nuclear legacy in the Pacific.
However, the international community’s verdict is clear: the Maohi have the right to independence if they so choose. Independence will not happen tomorrow; Flosse’s call for an immediate referendum would not result in independence unless temporary workers from France were excluded from the vote. This does not mean the United States should not prepare for this scenario. French decolonization in the Pacific has precedence in the experience of New Caledonia, which will face an independence referendum next year. This could serve as a model for French Polynesia itself.