Stunning electoral victory for independence party in French Polynesia

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By Nic Maclellan

In an unprecedented electoral victory, the independence party Tavini Huira’atira has won all three seats allocated to French Polynesia in the French National Assembly.

Voters across French Polynesia turned out on Saturday (Tahiti time) for the second round of elections to the French legislature. The poll saw a significant drop in support for French President Emmanuel Macron, who failed to win a governing majority in the National Assembly.

In the previous parliament, the pro-independence party only held one of the three seats for the French Pacific dependency. However, in a stunning victory, Moetai Brotherson was re-elected and joined by two other Tavini candidates: Steve Chailloux and Tematai Le Gayic.

“This is a historical moment in the political history of Maohi Nui,” Brotherson told Islands Business. “I had the honour to be the first ever member of the National Assembly from Tavini Huira’atira. Now there are three of us and this is absolutely stunning!”

“We did a very clean campaign without saying bad things about our opponents,” he said. “We explained our program, we explained our values, we explained what we wanted to do. That brought a new vision of politics in French Polynesia, in Maohi Nui, and I think that’s why we won.”

Mobilising the next generation

The election results are a major success for the political movement led by long time independence leader Oscar Manutahi Temaru. Founded in the 1970s as the Polynesian Liberation Front, Tavini has never before won all three constituencies in French Polynesia.

Assessing the unprecedented victory, Moetai Brotherson highlighted the importance of political renewal, with the party’s campaign reaching out to younger voters: “We brought forward some young candidates and the youth here appreciated it. So we had a lot of support from young people but also from their parents, who admired Tavini Huira’atira putting forward the youth.”

Aged 52, Brotherson is Vice President of the pro-independence party and has served in the French National Assembly in Paris since 2017, representing the third constituency of French Polynesia. He is now joined by younger colleagues Steve Chailloux, aged 36, and Tematai Le Gayic, a 21-year-old who will be the youngest deputy ever elected to the French legislature.

Le Gayic won a narrow victory over Nicole Bouteau, the candidate for the governing Tapura Huira’atira party, which is led by French Polynesia’s President Edouard Fritch. A long serving politician and former tourism minister, Bouteau polled well in the outlying Marquesas islands and Tuamotu archipelago. However, Le Gayic won significant support, especially from younger voters, in the main islands of Tahiti and Moorea, polling best in the capital Papeete, Arue and Moorea. Together with the votes of other opposition parties who dropped out after the first round of voting on 12 June, Le Gayic also mobilised new first time voters, winning more than 13,000 extra votes in last weekend’s second round.

“I’m happy, because my election is a symbol that voters have confidence in young people, not just because of their age, but because of their ideas,” Le Gayic said. “Young people have mobilised because of their social concerns and their concern over climate change. There is a desire to see a renewal of the political class and to involve more young people in politics.”

Le Gayic believes that his victory will inspire other young candidates to participate in the next elections for the local Assembly of French Polynesia, scheduled for 2023.

“I think we’ll see more young people standing for elections,” he told Islands Business. “The other political parties have seen that young people mobilised for this vote and I think they’ll want to surf along this wave. Many young people came up to tell me that my involvement gave them greater hope about the political system, and inspired them to get involved. So I’m really pleased about this.”

Steve Chailloux defeated Tapura’s candidate Tepuaraurii Teriitahi in the second constituency, which covers the south of Tahiti and the outlying Austral islands.

Like his colleagues, Chailloux said that voters were open to a new generation of younger, educated leaders: “An important element was the renewal of political leadership in our country – I think that was the big thing. The second thing is that my electorate was tired of the old politics that we have in French Polynesia. We brought fresh air and a fresh vision to young people – that’s why maybe our people trusted us in this election.”

Rarely seen without his beloved straw hat, Chailloux has a degree in anthropology from the elite École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHSS) in Paris and taught Tahitian at the University of Hawaii for a decade. A champion of Maohi language and culture, he celebrated the importance of identity and self-determination in his victory.

“The main topic in my personal campaign was to bring dignity to the people again,” Chailloux said. “In the French Constitution, we are not considered as a ‘people’, we are just considered as an ethnic population. But when you talk about a people, a people has a culture, land, ancestors, language and history. We’re not just an ethnic minority – we are the people of Maohi Nui, with a history, with a language, with ancestors.”

Economic impacts hit voters

For Tematai Le Gayic, voters turned away from candidates of the governing Tapura party because of growing concern over the cost of living, increasing energy costs and unemployment: “The social and economic questions were important, because there is rising unemployment in our country. A large part of our population lives on the poverty line.”

As in other Pacific countries, the local economy was hammered by a loss of tourism during the 2020-21 Covid-19 pandemic, with economic recovery progressing slowly this year as the tourism sector revives.

“There was some resentment from some of the population over the management of the pandemic, but more globally on economics here,” notes Moetai Brotherson. “There has been a series of new taxes that has been damaging to people’s buying power, so there was some resentment from many people towards the current government.”

In early 2000, France closed its borders as the Covid-19 pandemic began. Maina Sage – then a French Polynesian representative in the National Assembly – returned to Tahiti in early March 2020 and was the first person diagnosed with coronavirus. Governments in Paris and Papeete soon responded with travel restrictions, closure of schools and bans on cruise ships, but the local economy took a significant hit from the loss of tourism.

The re-opening of French Polynesia’s borders in July 2020 led to a massive surge of coronavirus cases as overseas Tahitians and tourists returned. There was a second wave of Covid-19 in July 2021, immediately following a four-day visit to French Polynesia by President Macron. Despite the mobilisation of local health workers and introduction of vaccination campaigns, by year’s end, French Polynesia had the highest per capita death rate recorded for any Pacific island country or territory.

Tematai Le Gayic notes that this health crisis focused attention on France’s colonial administration of the islands.

“During the Covid pandemic, many decisions were not taken by the Government of French Polynesia, but directly by the French state,” he said. “The Maohi people really figured out that key decisions were being taken in Paris, and that our local government couldn’t stand up to the policies taken by the French government. That really opened many people’s eyes and that’s why they voted for our pro-independence party.”

Le Gayic also highlights the social, environmental and economic impacts of the era of nuclear testing between 1966-1996, which still linger today.

“As well as the health impacts, there are also economic effects because we have undergone a massive economic transformation,” he said. “We have transformed from a positive balance of trade before the establishment of the CEP [Pacific Testing Centre] to a total dependence on finance from the French state. There is also the environmental question: today there is still nuclear contamination on the test sites of Moruroa and Fangataufa. We want to see France take responsibility to clean up the plutonium that is still found in the soil of these atolls.”

Macron takes a hit

Counting still continues in France to determine the final make-up of the National Assembly, but it’s already clear that the electoral coalition mobilised by President Emmanuel Macron has suffered a significant defeat.

The Ensemble coalition, linking Macron’s Renaissance party and two smaller groups, fell well short of the 289-seat majority required to govern in its own right. As we go to press, the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES), a left-wing political coalition led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, may have narrowly won the largest number of votes for the National Assembly, followed by Ensemble, then the extreme right wing Rassemblement national under Marine Le Pen and the main centre-right party Les Républicains.

While Macron can seek support from these conservative parties to build a parliamentary majority, the elections are a significant setback that overshadow his own re-election as President in April. Macron now faces significant challenges to push forward his domestic agenda on privatisation, pension reform and raising the retirement age. It also weakens his standing in foreign policy at a time of war in Europe and rising US-China tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.

The three newly elected deputies for French Polynesia will now work with the NUPES bloc in the French parliament, according to Moetai Brotherson.

“We are partners with NUPES: they said that they would support us and we have said that we will back their policies,” he said. “We’ll see how the numbers play out in Paris, but there’s no way we can work with the Rassemblement national – the former National Front – because Tavini Huira’atira is on the left and will stay on the left.”

Speaking to local radio in Tahiti after the elections, President Edouard Fritch complained that the independence party would now be French Polynesia’s only interlocutor in Paris.

“It’s catastrophic for me,” he said. “We are going to send three Tavini deputies to mainland France who are going to talk about sovereignty, independence, the United Nations! We are facing a major economic crisis and I cannot count on the three deputies, who will be in opposition to the presidential majority.”

But Steve Chailloux disagrees that the new team will ignore the needs of the whole population: “We’re still going to have a relationship with President Macron – it’s not because we’re in a minority that we can’t work together. There are specific subjects that we need to discuss, and these issues are for the people, so we don’t think it’s going to be a problem.

SOURCE: ISLANDS BUSINESS/PACNEWS