For French Polynesia’s newly elected president Moetai Brotherson not independence from France but continued assistance to the victims of the flooding two weeks ago is the most urgent challenge for his incoming government.

Brotherson told Tahiti Nui TV shortly after his election that apart from those affected in Tahiti, help would have to be given to people in the Tuamotus where homes had been destroyed.

Brotherson was elected on Friday by getting 38 out of 57 votes in the assembly vote, securing a five-year term at the helm of the government.

His election comes ten years since Oscar Temaru was the last pro-independence French Polynesian president and also ten years since the United Nations returned the French territory onto its decolonisation list.

The pursuit of independence, which is the central tenet of their Tavini Huiraatira, has been Brotherson’s repeatedly stated endeavour and a long-term goal but, like his predecessors, he has shown no hurry to call a referendum.

In his address to the assembly, Brotherson said, however, “not [to] fear independence”, which he said would “never be imposed”.

He added that his team was “to serve and not to be served”, adding that if commitment in politics is “difficult” he was to assume it “with conviction”.

While being asked about a possible timetable for independence, Brotherson said he considered himself unable to get to a referendum on independence from France in the next five years, but possibly in 10 to 15 years.

He told La Premiere that the electorate must first be defined that could take part in a referendum.

Brotherson said several steps needed to be taken until a vote was possible.

“If we asked the question tomorrow to the [French] Polynesians, I think that the majority, let’s face it, would answer ‘No’ to this referendum.”

Antony Geros, who is a veteran Tavini politician and since last week again the assembly president, viewed a vote on independence as a priority, reflecting a more radical position within the party.

Last year, the party founder and leader Oscar Temaru, vowed to interpret these recent territorial elections as a referendum, saying a victory by a large margin would make a referendum pointless.

Temaru said Kosovo and Vanuatu became independent without a referendum, but Brotherson downplayed the comment, insisting on adhering to the decolonisation process available through the United Nations.

In the dying days of the last pro-independence government in 2013, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution – sponsored by Solomon Islands – and re-inscribed French Polynesia on its decolonisation list.

In 1947, France had removed French Polynesia, which was annexed in 1880, from the UN list without consulting the population.

Paris keeps rejecting the inscription, seen as a UN interference in France’s internal affairs, and keeps boycotting the annual decolonisation committee’s debate on French Polynesia.

In 2018, Brotherson noted that “when the topic of New Caledonia is raised at the UN, they [French diplomats] stay in the room whereas whenever it comes to the topic of French Polynesia, they leave the room and then they come back afterwards. To us it is total disrespect, and we don’t think it’s a posture that they can adopt much longer”.

Brotherson said last year, when he was a member of the French National Assembly, he spoke to the French ambassador outside the committee venue in New York to tell him that France’s “empty chair policy isn’t a good look”.

Now as the new president of French Polynesia, Brotherson called for respect for the institutions and for respect for France.

If France will change its stance is not immediately clear.

Its representative in Papeete, High Commissioner Eric Spitz, told local media that the issue was beyond his brief.

“At the national level, the President of the Republic with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will decide whether or not when the case of French Polynesia will be addressed”, he said.

However, France cooperates with the UN on the decolonisation of New Caledonia, which was re-inscribed in 1986 after the territory had seen spells of political violence amid calls for independence.

In response to the UN vote in May 2013, the French Polynesian assembly, with its pro-autonomy majority, adopted a resolution asking France to organise a referendum on the territory’s self-determination.

The resolution was tabled by the then ruling Tahoeraa Huiraatira of Gaston Flosse, who described the UN as dictatorial, and got the backing of 46 of the assembly’s 57 members.

Flosse had already made a call for an independence referendum in 2005, but that was ignored, just like in 2013.

The pro-autonomy government, led by his successor Edouard Fritch, approached the UN in 2017, seeking the removal of the territory from the decolonisation list.

It argued that the UN had ignored a resolution by the French Polynesian assembly from May 2013 that stated that neither the government nor the assembly had consulted the voters whether they favoured the inscription.

The Fritch government also claimed French Polynesia was an autonomous territory in the sense of the UN charter and should therefore not be on the list.

Benoit Kautai, who briefly stood as a candidate for the presidency, accused the Tavini of being prepared to haggle with foreign nations, in particular China, about the exploitation of the resources.

As new president, Brotherson keeps being asked to explain his stance on China’s growing presence in the region.

Brotherson told La Premiere that “China is a superpower which, in the political game, plays its part according to its own interests.”

“We do not want to forbid ourselves from discussing with anyone, on the other hand, we are cautious, and our instinctive position is that of not being aligned with the positions of one or the other.”

When in 2018 French president Emmanuel Macron unfolded his vision of an Indo-Pacific axis stretching from Paris to Papeete, Brotherson said “Tahiti and its islands should not be drawn into plans of the superpowers. We don’t envision our future as a pawn for France on the geostrategic chessboard for France.”

“We don’t want to be used and abused by superpowers, any of them, including France.”

In 2018, he said interactions with China had to be carefully managed to avoid what happened to some African countries.

“Going from soft power to hard power in many of these countries when they come to have established strategic ties.

“We don’t want to be in that position because we have welcomed China, we change one coloniser for the other,” Brotherson said.