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The pro-independence forces are likely to push the French authorities to negotiate a referendum on French Polynesia status 

France keeps losing influence in its overseas lands and areas of strategic concern, giving way to China in the Pacific region and to Russia in Africa. These efforts by Beijing and Moscow are unlikely to be coordinated, but are likely to mark the emerging necolonial policy by China and Russia, targeting to dismantle power of Western democracies.

With Moscow focused in Africa, China seeks to maximize its influence in the Pacific.

The pro-independence party won the second round of territorial elections in French Polynesia on Sunday, April 30, and for the first time will have a stable majority to govern the overseas territory in the heart of the South Pacific.

The Tavini party of former president Oscar Temaru garnered 44.3% of the votes in the second round of the votes, compared with 38.5% for the list led by current autonomist president Edouard Fritch and 17.1 percent by  a former autonomist vice-president Nuihau Laurey  who takes only 3 seats.

Former autonomist vice president Nuihau Laurey received 17.2% of the vote. Temaru’s slate was in a strong position before the second round, expecting to benefit from a large part of the electoral carryovers from the eliminated parties, which all campaigned against the incumbent president, who is close to French President Emmanuel Macron’s majority.

Fritch and the outgoing government lose because of their poor communication during the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite a rather positive economic performance, the high inflation suffered by Polynesia in 2022 (8.5%) was blamed on them by part of the public opinion because of a new VAT introduced to preserve the local social security system.

The islands enjoy a large degree of autonomy within the French Republic. The Assemblée of French Polynesia – made up of 57 members elected for five years – will elect the president of the territory in a secret ballot vote in mid-May. This president will form his or her own government with executive function.

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Having been overtaken by alliances and disagreements between 2004 and 2013, the independentists have never held power for a full term since the party was founded in 1977. But this time, they won 19 additional seats and will therefore have a solid majority for the five-year term.

Temaru, the former president of French Polynesia, has maintained his position as head of the list and president of his party. He did not express himself much during the campaign, leaving room for Moetai Brotherson, deputy candidate for the presidency of the territory, and the party’s young guard, such as MPs Tematai Le Gayic and Steve Chailloux.

Tavini is now expected to nominate Moetai Brotherson to lead the regional government based in Papeete.

The result will allow the pro-independence forces to seek to push the French authorities to negotiate a referendum on the status of the territory.

French Polynesia’s economic capacity does not allow it to function independently, as it should be backed by a powerful EU economy or China, which determines the policy and future of Papaete, if independent.

The result is a low-blow to the government of President Emmanuel Macron as it seeks to project France as a major power in the Pacific region due to its strategic overseas territories. France has always refused a referendum on the status of French Polynesia. The situation here repeats the scenario around other major Pacific territory of New Caledonia.

French Polynesia is one of several French overseas territories that span the Caribbean and the Pacific and give Paris a global footprint unmatched by any other European nation.

The Polynesia vote came as controversy continues over an operation on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte to clear slums and stem illegal immigration.

Polynesia is in China’s interest zone, that is why Beijing is most likely to meddle in provoking separatism in these French overseas territories. China began to enter the islands in time. Beijing offers generous loans to the Polynesians and wants to build a large port for its trading and fishing boats.

President Fritch claimed in 2019 that the territory was part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China has chosen to place French Polynesia on the Silk Road, he said. 

In a context of China’s growing influence in the Pacific region, French Polynesia, like other island states or territories, seeks to develop its own balance of power. According to article 74 of the French Constitution, French Polynesia is a French overseas territory, with an enlarged status of autonomy and its own institutions (president, government, and legislative assembly). The president of French Polynesia is legally empowered to establish external relations.

The Polynesian executive notably maintains strong bilateral relations with China, without necessarily involving the French state. Beyond official institutions such as the Chinese consulate (2007) and the Confucius Institute (2013), soft power initiatives led by official authorities or by mandated associations are used locally to promote Beijing’s influence.

French Polynesia presents a major strategic interest for China. It is a pivotal maritime space of 118 islands between Asia and America, covering an EEZ of nearly 4.5 million square kilometers. Its southern position also makes the territory suitable for all types of space observation and modern forms of connectivity (aerial, extra-atmospheric, navigation, telecommunications).

For its part, the Polynesian government, aware of its economic dependence on financial transfers from the French state and isolated from its own regional environment, sees in China prospects for economic growth that no other player can offer it.

French Polynesia means a lot for Beijing in the context of strengthening its military presence in the Pacific. French Polynesia is tantamount to a power projection highway, running through the heart of the Pacific into Asia, and connecting the military forces stationed on a sweep of islands sprinkled between Hawaii, Australia, and the Philippines along the way.

Hao Atoll is of particular interest to China, as a former military base for French nuclear tests in the region. Infrastructure already exists, such as an airstrip of more than 3 km protected by a dyke and a deep-water port.National deputy Moetai Broherson believes that the objective of this project is not economic, but rather logistical, to make the atoll a supply point for Chinese fishing vessels in the region.

According to Chinese analyses, two security threats in the region make it urgent for China to expand its diplomatic and physical reach: the first threat includes political instability, piracy, terrorism, transnational crime, and climate disaster in the Pacific region. The second threat is all about the perceived American threat, since the natural geographical line traced by these islands acts as the perfect American barrier to Chinese maritime expansion.

The Polynesians, however, view autonomy not like Beijing, as it believes the independence means transition under China’s protectorate, including culturally. Autonomy for Polynesians means a Polynesian president, a parliament presided over by Polynesians and elected by Polynesians, while continuing the relationship with France. But France wanted the president of Polynesia to be French and to be chosen by France. 

The People’s Republic of China (PRC), however, still claims rights over the consular land which was originally bought by the Republic of China (ROC). This ‘two Chinas’ related issue thoroughly divides the Chinese in French Polynesia.

After the first Chinese consul was appointed in 1945 to represent the Chinese residents in this French Overseas Territory, the government of the Republic of China (ROC) acquired a parcel of land where it built a consular building in June 1946. The fate of the land was raised for the first time after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was recognised by De Gaulle in 1964. A year later, the French government decided to close the consulate. 

The very fact that this community, composed of third and fourth generation descendants of Chinese immigrants, is still divided around questions that are relevant to the “two Chinas” problem (the PRC and the ROC in Taiwan), should lead us to characterize this community as diasporic.