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  • French Polynesia
  • David Chappell

Two overriding issues stand out in the past year or so in French Polynesia: another change of statute, this time to a supposedly more autonomous "overseas country" of France rather than an "overseas territory," and a surprising assembly election in May 2004, which ended the twenty-year reign of Gaston Flosse as president and brought into office his longtime pro-independence rival, Oscar Temaru. No local leader, however, can easily escape the harsh reality of severe economic dependency caused by the introduction of nuclear testing in the 1960s. French military spending distorted the communal Polynesian society and created a middle class that fed on French-subsidized government jobs and patronage and enriched itself through corrupt business monopolies and real estate investments at the expense of the laboring majority.

French Polynesia, whose capital Papeete is on the populous main island of Tahiti, is still in quest of a post-nuclear economy, since French funding for the former Centre d'Experimentation du Pacifique (CEP) ended in the late 1990s. France continues to transfer massive aid for development, as much as US $1 billion a year ( PIR,26 Aug 2002). Flosse built himself a monumental presidential palace that houses "623 employees and courtiers" and invested public money in many grandiose projects in Tahiti and overseas, but Temaru's demand for a referendum on independence is necessarily tempered by a vision of ongoing French subsidies and compensation for the impact of nuclear testing. Editor Alex W du Prel of Tahiti-Pacifique Magazine called the situation a "social and economic fiasco" due to "cut and paste programs prepared in Paris for a great industrial country, which French Polynesia is certainly not." The Flosse administration, which du Prel said encouraged only a "consumer society of privileges, of ecological looting and corporatist castes [and] above all made the rich more rich and marginalized the part of the population that remained authentic," at one point even asked the local people for "fresh ideas" (TPM July 2004).

The number one local industry remained tourism. In 2003, the number of visitors was over 200,000 (nearly equaling the local population), which represented a recovery from the negative impact of the events of 11 September 2001 on air travel. North America, and mainly the United States, provided the largest number of visitors, with 77,000 or 40 percent of the market (and also the largest single increase over 2002, about 25 percent); it was followed closely by Europe, with 74,000 or 38 percent of the market; then Japan with 20,000 (10 percent); Australia, New Zealand, and New Caledonia with 16,000 (8 [End Page 193] percent); and South America (mainly Chile) with 3,800 (2 percent). Despite special efforts to cater to the Japanese market, such as increasing Tahiti Nui service to three flights a week to Osaka and Tokyo and holding a scuba-diving exhibition, the number of Japanese visitors—mainly wedding couples (who spend on average twice as much as other tourists and especially enjoy the over-the-water bungalows for honeymoons)—did not quite match the previous year (PIR, 4 April 2003; 5 Jan 2004).

The number two industry, cultured black pearls from the Tuamotu atolls, declined drastically in 2003, as prices dropped by 80 percent. Despite government regulatory reforms aimed at controlling quality, informal trading to foreign buyers evaded taxes and undercut sellers. The local government continued to promote tuna fishing, by increasing the country's fleet size, as well as vanilla production, a once-profitable export for which world prices were increasing (PIR, 24 June 2002; 18 Feb, 13 May, 10 June 2003). State-funded infrastructure construction continued to grow, and scholarships for overseas training increased, but government efforts to curb rising deficits in public health insurance and civil service pension funds pushed doctors to strike for amonth in 2003 over reduced payments, while public workers demonstrated against extending the required number of years for pension contributions (PIR, 1 May, 29 May, 9 June, 12 Aug 2003).

French Polynesia has received several statutes of autonomy, notably in 1977 and 1984, but French notions of "autonomy" are usually defined through the lens of a political system that is more highly centralized...


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