Is Polynesia still a French colony? Legally, certainly not: The overseas territory has had an Assembly for 46 years – the second round of elections is scheduled for April 30 – and a government that manages the area and its budget apart from a few prerogatives: International commitments, justice, police, administrative control and universities remain the domain of France, which is represented by a high commissioner.
But the colonial legacy is omnipresent in these archipelagos scattered over an area as vast as Europe and only populated by 280,000.
“Tahiti continues, partly politically, and certainly economically and culturally, to be a colony,” anthropologist Bruno Saura wrote in 2021 in his book Tahitians, French. “Nevertheless, it is a colony and a colonial situation of a particular kind, one in the 21st century.”
“The French establishments in Oceania,” a protectorate created in 1842, became a French colony in 1880 after merciless wars against local populations. Polynesia became an Overseas Territory in 1946 before being granted autonomy in 1977. The process was completed in 2004. The French state accepted in exchange for relative political calm as so to continue its nuclear campaign with 193 tests from 1966 to 1996, including 46 aerial tests . “The period of nuclear testing was another moment of the use of force, surveillance and isolation of certain opponents, a truly colonial moment,” Saura wrote.
Pouvanaa a Oopa, one of the leaders of the independentists, was one of these opponents. He was accused of having wanted to set fire to Papeete. He ended up being vigorously dismissed in 1958 and exiled by the Gaullist authorities.
Today, Polynesians manage their own destiny, even if the French state pays a little more than €1.5 billion each year for education, health, and waste treatment.
The flip side of the Tahitian tourist paradise is dark and the social inequalities are gigantic. In 2009, 27.6% of the population lived below the poverty line (€405 euros per month), while 20% of the richest households received nearly half of the total income. Given that consumer prices are 39% higher than in metropolitan France, it is easy to understand why so many Tahitians, deprived of family solidarity in the islands, sleep in the streets or live in shanty towns.
Life is expensive because 82% of food products are imported but also because a few Polynesian and Chinese families manage oligopolies or hold genuine monopolies: Tahitian Coca-Cola, for example, is the sweetest in the world, and every year a little more so, with a view to reinforcing a dependency. Seventy percent of the adult population is overweight and 40% suffers from obesity.
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