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Independence waves rock French hold on colonised Pacific

Oscar Temaru

Tahiti’s Oscar Temaru … soundly defeated in elections, but delighted with the UN decolonisation vote. Image: France 24

As French Polynesia embarks on a controversial “decolonisation” track with the United Nations, New Caledonia faces a referendum for independence due next year. Jane Jeffries reports on the Francophone Pacific for Asia-Pacific Journalism.

Pacific Scoop
Report – By Jane Jeffries

Long time conservative politician and leader of the anti-independence Tahoeraa Huiraatira Party Gaston Flosse is finally back in the presidency in French Polynesia following a landslide victory earlier this month.

As soon as he was elected, one of Flosse’s first tasks was to try to stop the decolonisation bid at the United Nations lodged by the outgoing government of rival pro-independence champion Oscar Temaru.

Across the Pacific in New Caledonia, 20 years of reforms leading to the transfer of powers from France to the local government in Noumea has been unfolding. But the hard question will come next year when a referendum on independence is due to take place after the 2014 elections.

APJlogo72_iconFormer president Oscar Manutahi Temaru, leader of the pro-independence Tavini Huiraatira (Union for Democracy) party, had campaigned hard for decades for the territory’s re-inscription on the UN decolonisation list.

In an effort to block the bid, Flosse asked the French President to intervene.

However, the UN General Assembly on May 17 adopted the resolution to put French Polynesia back on the UN list of territories to be decolonised.

Nauru, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu sponsored the resolution last February but it was not tabled until this month.  It called on France to intensify its dialogue with French Polynesia and to affirm the right of the French Polynesians to self-determination and independence.

Independence crusade
Oscar Temura started his crusade for independence back in the 1970s.

“The independence movement in the French Polynesia and around the Pacific has been at the forefront of this since the 1970,” says Dr Steven Ratuva, senior lecturer of the Centre for Pacific Studies at Auckland University.

“The UN resolution of French Polynesia re-enlisting on the decolonisation list comes at a very significant moment when New Caledonia is also going through the process towards greater autonomy and even independence under the Noumea Accord.”

A combination of these factors has prompted the UN to prod the French government to make a move towards handing power back to the French Polynesian people.

Many believe independence is really a distraction from the real problems. Voters were looking for stability and someone they knew and could trust, although Flosse’s reputation and convictions gives him little credibility.

Tahiti"s Gaston Flosse

Tahiti”s Gaston Flosse … back in power and out to stall “independence”. Image: RFI

Now aged 81, Flosse is a controversial figure. He has been convicted of corruption and given a four-year suspended prison sentence. The verdict is under appeal.

If Flosse loses the appeal he will not be able to continue as President so will have to hand over to his Vice-President.

Paris embarrassed
Despite Flosse being closely aligned with the French government his behaviour has been embarrassing for Paris.

French Polynesian elections have bought about fragmentation over the last decade as the electoral system has been flawed and it is hard to gain a majority.

To rectify the problem, a new electoral system was introduced. After two rounds, the winner of the second round is allocated a third of the seats to guarantee a majority.

To add to its woes, French Polynesia has economic issues as well.

In an article by Charles Richardson in early May after the elections, Temaru said:

“We have been living in this country with France’s financial support and [with] the international recession, economic recession it was a very hard decision to manage this country. And the opposition has hammered on that.”

Economic crisis
A Tahiti-based journalist and correspondent for Pacific Scoop, Thibault Marais, told Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat programme that French Polynesia’s current economic crisis was a bigger factor than the elections.

“People feel Mr Flosse…. could do a better job,” he said. Creating more jobs for Tahitians is what was needed.

Despite the territory’s vote for an anti- independence party, one of the criticisms of the UN decision is that is has gone against the will of the majority of the French Polynesian people.

France immediately condemned the move and described it as a glaring interference in its policies and a total lack of respect for the choice made by the voters.

Germany, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and the United States all disassociated themselves from the consensus vote.

Setting a precedent
French Polynesia is in a very difficult and different situation to New Caledonia, whose future is governed by the 1988 Noumea Accord.

“The UN resolution comes at a very significant moment when New Caledonia is going through the process towards greater autonomy and even independence under the Noumea Accord,” says Dr Ratuva.

New Caledonia went through a troublesome period in the late 1980s with a virtual civil war between the indigenous supporters of independence, the Kanaks, and mostly anti-independence descendants of the French settlers.

The Kanaks were frustrated at the lack of movement towards independence.

After nearly four years of fighting, claiming many lives, the parties seized fighting,  leaving a severely damaged economy.

The outcome was the signing of the Matignon Accord in 1988 followed by the updated Noumea Accord in 2002, which bought peace and stability to the region. It was designed to provide a common destiny for the people of New Caledonia and a promised referendum on independence after the 2014 elections.

This unique agreement between New Caledonia and the French government provided a timetable to gradually pass over some of the powers.

Power transfer
For more than 20 years, the transfer of powers from France to the local government in Noumea has happened. But the hard question is still to be answered.

The referendum on independence will take place after the 2014 elections and a decision needs to be made about whether the control of matters such as foreign affairs, police and justice stays in the hands of France or be handed over to the territorial government in New Caledonia.

While it appears the majority of people are happy with the status quo, there is still huge resistance from the anti-independent parties to hand the final reins over to New Caledonia.

The outcome of the referendum will see either an irreversible transfer of power to a locally elected government with full independence from France or some sovereign powers will remain with the French.

In an interview recently on Australia Network, Pacific correspondent Sean Dorney asked the President of the Congress of New Caledonia, Harold Martin, what New Caledonia’s future status could be?

Martin said at the end of the Noumea Accord, New Caledonia could not stay with the status quo and it could not be independence either.

President Martin said he did not think independence was viable.

Political level
“It is impossible on a political level as there is a vast majority of people here who do not want independence.”

He also added independence would not be viable from a social perspective either as it would widen the social fractures that already existed between the communities.

Loyalist and former President of the government of New Caledonia, Philippe Gomès said in an interview on May 17 that full independence would be difficult.

In this globalised world, he said, New Caledonia should be a small nation within a bigger nation – France.

He said New Caledonia needed two things: Sharing a sovereignty agreement with France and also economic assistance. Currently France provides $41.5 billion a year to New Caledonia.

The vast majority of Kanaks, the indigenous people of New Caledonia, still want full independence.

“The opinions are divided in French Polynesia and we may see the debate within the country intensifying, and whether it will lead to more instability is still to be seen,” says Dr Ratuva.

Uncertain times
While New Caledonia has some way to go before the May 2014 elections and referendum, French Polynesia is only just beginning its path.

“ What the UN vote will do is give the independence movement a lot more international legitimacy and moral boost and, with the support of the Pacific counties, will probably start mobilising internationally for independence. It’s important that a process like in New Caledonia should be in place to facilitate the peaceful transition,” says Dr Ratuva.

France is keen to stay in the Pacific so a similar agreement to the Noumea Accord is unlikely.

Yet the UN has sent a strong political signal to Paris that time is running out.

“France needs to address the issue of independence. The General Assembly will not change its mind on the decision.”

“Independence in new Caledonia will surely bring hope for a similar outcome in French Polynesia” says Maire M’Balla-Ndi, a doctoral researcher into New Caledonian news media at James Cook University.

“It’s still too early to say if French Polynesia stands any chance to get an agreement similar to the Noumea Accord. France’s reaction to the UN doesn’t suggest this is going to be an easy process.”

Jane Jeffries is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communications Studies (Journalism) student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.