French rule over the Tahitians is a constant reminder that remote colonial governments can be incredibly out of touch with the sensitivities of people they are governing. In an earlier era, colonial powers didn’t care about the desires of subject peoples, but now they pretend to—at least at times. Frequent blunders, such as ones by the government of France last week in Polynesia, make the colonial system seem particularly foolish.
The French Secretary of State for overseas territories, Christian Estrosi, has been the latest inept meddler in the affairs of French Polynesia. He flew into Tahiti Sunday, December 16, for a three-day visit, his fourth trip to the territory since June. He was scheduled to spend time in the Northern Marquesas, part of French Polynesia to the northeast of Tahiti and the Society Islands.
His visits earlier this year produced a set of bills enacted by the French Parliament, one of which expressed a desire to “stabilize” politics in the islands. As a result, a snap general election will be held at the end of January. Estrosi’s interference in the political life of the territory during his previous visits prompted Oscar Temaru, the President of French Polynesia, to not meet him at the airport when he arrived. The official excuse was that the President had to attend a cabinet meeting.
When he arrived, Estrosi indicated that he would be careful to not, in any way, get involved in political comments or debates. As he opened some public works projects, he said that he would visit Polynesia again in March, accompanied by the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy.
President Temaru was not the only one to react angrily to Estrosi’s visit. The opposition party headed by Gaston Flosse, the Tahoeraa Huiraatire, has also criticized the overseas minister for visiting only a few weeks ahead of the general elections. The party alleges that the official visit represents an unwelcome meddling into the internal affairs of French Polynesia. For a party that has allied itself solidly with the ideal of the territory having an autonomous position within France, the criticism was interesting.
The minister then got himself seriously involved with Polynesian affairs on Monday, the 17th, which stirred up repercussions throughout the week. The mayor of one of the islands in the Marquesas, Joseph Kahia from Ua Pou, made a speech with Mr. Estrosi beside him. The mayor proposed a partnering relationship of the Marquesas archipelago directly with France. Speaking at the inauguration of a new city hall, Mayor Kahia suggested that the Marquesas should have a “direct relation with France”—outside French Polynesia.
Predictably, President Temaru denounced the suggestion, which he perceived as organized by the French government—an “act of banditry inadmissible,” he said. He went on to allege that “there was a secret meeting in the Marquesas where some mayors and Christian Estrosi have developed this outrageous idea.” He asserted that the Marquesas are an integral part of French Polynesia, and that “this is an attempt to divide our population. It is a shame and a scandal, unworthy of a Republic like France in the 21st century.”
The President promptly organized a protest march into Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, on Saturday, December 22, at which about 1,000 people demonstrated.
He also started a petition drive on all the islands to request that the United Nations reinstate French Polynesia on a UN list of colonized territories that should be decolonized. Numerous other people in the territory were outraged by the actions of the French minister.
In fact, the opposition party of Gaston Flosse closed ranks with President Temaru over the issue. The Tahoeraa Huiraatira party announced late in the week that Flosse believes France is trying to divide and rule with its attempts to foment secession in the Marquesas. Is it reasonable to wonder if the insensitive blunders by the French minister may have been calculated to promote a measure of unity among the two rival parties? Could the government of France be that devious?