Tahiti's independence movement revives


OSCAR TEMARU is leader of Tavini Huiraatira (Polynesian Liberation Front), the main pro-independence party in French-colonised Tahiti. He has led the Tahitian opposition to the French government's decision to resume nuclear testing. Green Left Weekly's NORM DIXON interviewed Temaru, who spoke from on board the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior just before it docked in Papeete to a tumultuous welcome by thousands of Tahitians on July 14.

Temaru is mayor of Fa'aa, a town of 25,000 mainly working-class and poor indigenous people situated near the airport that serves the capital, Papeete. He was elected in 1983 on an unambiguous pro-independence and anti-nuclear stance. In the first round of the 1993 French national assembly elections, Temaru won 27% of the vote against his pro-French opponent's 33%.

The large anti-nuclear mobilisations in Papeete and other parts of "French" Polynesia have highlighted the support that Temaru commands. The demonstrations have also added a new impetus to the Tahitian people's resistance to French colonialism. Temaru emphasised that the issue of nuclear tests and "our struggle for freedom from this colonial power cannot be dissociated".

The huge demonstrations on June 29 and July 14 have shown "the entire world that the majority of the Maohi people refuse the resumption of N-testing in our backyard. We have organised the biggest demonstrations in the street to show that we are the people of this country, not France."

History of resistance

When the French occupied Tahiti in 1842, "there were big battles between our ancestors and the French soldiers. Since that time there have been big fights between the local population and the French occupying army", he said.

Support for independence is not new in "French" Polynesia, even if its existence is not widely known outside the territory. Between 1844 and 1847, rebels led by King Pomare and supported by the entire population waged a guerilla war against the French from mountain strongholds. In 1986, Temaru paid tribute to these fighters by erecting a monument in their honour.

The modern independence movement also draws inspiration from Tahiti's most respected nationalist, Pouvanaa Tetuaapua Oopa. Taking World War II French leader General de Gaulle at his word that once the Nazis were defeated, political, social and economic reforms would follow in the French colonies, Pouvanaa was one of several hundred indigenous Tahitians who joined the Free French forces in Europe and North Africa.

Upon their return to Tahiti in 1946, their eyes opened to the political and social realities of the world by their sojourn in Europe, the discrimination and injustices meted out to the local inhabitants by the French authorities were all the more unbearable. Already renowned as a fighter for Tahitian rights before the war, Pouvanaa become their natural spokesperson. He was angered to find that government jobs continued to be filled by bureaucrats from France rather than by Polynesians.

In 1947, Pouvanaa led a dockside demonstration that prevented French officials, arriving to take up local jobs, from landing. He and his supporters were arrested and held for several months. Acquitted, he emerged from jail more popular than ever.

In 1949, Pouvanaa was elected to the French lower house with a huge majority. In 1952, he was re-elected with a 70% vote. Two years later his party, RDPT (Democratic Assembly of the Tahitian People), won an overwhelming majority in the Territorial Assembly.


In early 1958, Pouvanaa and the RDPT, which still controlled the largely token Territorial Assembly, announced they favoured secession from France. A tax was also foreshadowed on business to fund an independent Tahiti. The moves coincided with de Gaulle's referendum to inaugurate the Fifth Republic and the bloody struggle in Algeria for independence. De Gaulle announced that a no vote in any of France's overseas possessions would be regarded as a vote for independence, and all French aid and support would be cut off immediately.

Pouvanaa campaigned enthusiastically on the slogan "Tahiti for the Tahitians ... Vote NO so that the enslaving yoke will be quickly removed from around our necks". The local and French settler capitalist classes, the Catholic Church hierarchy, civil servants and military personnel who already knew of the contingency plans for nuclear testing to be moved to "French" Polynesia from Algeria, and the French government were aghast.

A combination of political pressure and economic blackmail by the French government caused a split in the RDPT. Pouvanaa was in the minority. He was banned from radio, thus denying his message to the inhabitants of a country whose 118 islands are spread out over an area the equivalent of Australia. The referendum passed with 64% in favour.

The French authorities moved rapidly to silence Pouvanaa completely. Using his Algerian emergency powers, de Gaulle sacked Pouvanaa and his cabinet. Pro-French and pro-capitalist demonstrators besieged Pouvanaa in his house. Instead of breaking up the mob, French security forces arrested Pouvanaa on trumped-up charges of planning to burn down Papeete.

After a year in solitary confinement, the veteran nationalist leader was sentenced to eight years' jail and 15 years' exile. In 1963, the RDPT was outlawed by Paris as a threat to the "integrity of the national territory" after it opposed the arrival of French troops and the nuclear testing program. With Pouvanaa and his movement muzzled, preparations began immediately for the nuclear testing on Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in 1966.

Nuclear tests

The coming of the nuclear program to the Pacific led to sudden and profound changes for the people of Tahiti, Oscar Temaru told Green Left Weekly.

"Until 1965 our economy had a good balance between imports and exports. From that year, people of the outer archipelagoes started to come to Tahiti to work. They left the traditional way of life to come to the Tahiti urban zone", he explained.

Land was reclaimed from the lagoon, and work started on the new international airport at Fa'aa, which also allowed Tahiti to become a major tourist destination. New docks were constructed as well as large projects associated with the nuclear testing program and housing projects for the thousands of French personnel involved. The French government also pumped in huge amounts of money to buy local acquiescence, blunting demands for outright independence for many years.

"They are still there, living in a very precarious situation. We have about 30,000 people jobless, excluded from the society. That is too many in a population of 100,000", Temaru added. Today, Papeete is overcrowded and surrounded by slums. In 1951 only 48% of French Polynesia's population lived on Tahiti, but by the late 1980s this had increased to over 70%, with around 50% living in the Papeete urban zone.

Until 1960, most of the population sustained itself through subsistence agriculture and fishing, and earned extra cash from vanilla, copra and other crops. Within a decade Tahiti was importing most of its food and by the end of the 1980s over 80%. In less than a decade, the people had been transformed from peasant farmers to proletarians.

Discrimination continued, Temaru told Green Left Weekly. "When we started to go to school, we were strictly forbidden to speak our own language. Now they have admitted that the Tahitian language is the second official language of our country, but still all the documents, all the literature is in French. The educational system is in French.

"That is why, after 153 years of colonisation, we don't have the people we need to rule the country. We have very few Tahitian doctors, very few Tahitian lawyers, and very few technicians. All these occupations are controlled by the French. That means we are completely dependent on what the French would like to do in our country."

Despite the setbacks for the independence movement in the early 1960s, local politics remained dominated throughout the 1970s and early 1980s by a range of parties that called for greater and genuine autonomy. Despite some token measures, successive French governments opposed their demands. Explicitly pro-French parties failed to gain majority support.

Frustrated with French intransigence, a new generation of Tahitians formed several militant parties that again advocated independence. Temaru's Tavini Huiraatira was formed in 1975. From the beginning, the party argued for immediate independence, immediate cessation of nuclear testing and a redistribution of wealth.

In the 1980s, supporters of independence became the main opposition after the pro-French party led by Glaston Flosse opportunistically embraced many of the policies of the autonomists, coopting and compromising many of them. Flosse won control of the Territorial Assembly. Electoral support for Tavini Huiraatira jumped from 6.4% in 1986 to 11.4% in 1991. The party has four members in the 41-member assembly.

"The idea of independence is growing very fast", Temaru told Green Left Weekly. The recent French presidential elections are a significant indicator of this, he explained. "Since 1981, we have urged our people to abstain from voting in French presidential elections. In 1981, 30% abstained. In 1995, 50% abstained. If you take out all the French civil servants, French soldiers and military personnel who also vote in Tahiti, that means only 30% of the local population participated in that election." That result bodes well for the Territorial Assembly elections due in March, Temaru said.

The independence movement's organisation and ability to mobilise have also improved, he added. "This is a very big country. It is bigger than Europe. That is the main problem we face. Going from Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands, for example, takes two hours by plane. Despite that, we have committees everywhere. We educate our people and try to politicise them about many problems we have in this country."

The movement's goal is to win independence by the year 2000, Temaru said. "As is mentioned in UN Resolution 4347 passed in 1988, the decade 1990 to 2000 is the decade for the eradication of colonialism throughout the world. The decision taken by the president of France [to resume nuclear testing] is a good example of the colonial system."

Temaru was also critical of the role the Australian government has played. He described the Australian and New Zealand governments' stands in relation to the Pacific independence movements as "too soft". He called on these governments to support independence for French colonies in the Pacific.

"That Australia continues to sell uranium to France while at the same time protesting against French nuclear testing is hypocrisy", Temaru added.

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