• Indigenous peoples in Mā'ohi Nui (French Polynesia)

    Indigenous peoples in Mā'ohi Nui (French Polynesia)

    Mā'ohi Nui (French Polynesia) is a former colony of France. Although France has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Mā'ohi Nui’s Indigenous population are struggling with issues such as recognition of the Polynesian languages, compensation for social and health consequences from French nuclear tests, and natural resource exploitation.

The Indigenous World 2024: Mā'ohi Nui (French Polynesia)

The Kingdom of Tahiti became a protectorate under the French colonial project in 1842. Mā'ohi Nui (French Polynesia) has been an Overseas Collectivity of the French Republic since 2004. It enjoys relative political autonomy within the French Republic through its own local institutions: the Government and Assembly of Mā'ohi Nui.[1] Mā'ohi Nui has many powers of its own that are no longer controlled by the French State, making these local institutions a key political issue for Polynesian political players.

Today, Mā'ohi Nui has a population of 283,000 (of which some 80% are Polynesians).[2] The demographic profile for 2020 illustrates a slowdown in population growth – due to emigration and a falling birth rate, with an overall fertility rate of 1.7 children per woman – and an ageing population.[3] Mā'ohi Nui is characterized by increasing social inequalities with, in particular, higher income inequalities than in mainland France, as noted by the French Polynesian Institute of Statistics (ISPF) and, in particular, its 2015 family budget survey, which showed that one-fifth of the Polynesian population was living below the poverty line.[4] This situation can be explained in large part “by the very poor redistribution efforts of the Polynesian tax system”,[5] i.e. the absence of income tax. With consumer prices an average 31% higher than on mainland France,[6] and after a decade of inflation, the end of 2022 and the start of 2023 were marked by a period of record inflation,[7] leading to a new stage in the weakening of lower and middle-income households’ purchasing power, and thus of living conditions in general, with access to sufficient, quality food being a particular problem.

Mā'ohi Nui is also marked by a multitude of other social inequalities in comparison to mainland France. Gender-related inequalities are pronounced, with intra-family sexual violence statistically far more prevalent.[8][9] Mā'ohi Nui has long been characterized by its polarized political life, with the Tavini Huiraatira, an independence party led by Oscar Temaru, on the one hand, and the Tahoera'a Huiraatira, an autonomist party led by Gaston Flosse, on the other. Until 2016, the latter advocated staying within the French Republic but since then has focused on changing its autonomous status to that of an associated state.[10] In 2016, a succession crisis within Tahoera'a, following Flosse being declared ineligible to stand for public office (confirmed by the Court of Cassation in January 2022),[11] led to the creation of a third political party, Tapura Huiraatira. This autonomist party was created in 2016 by Edouard Fritch, who was President of Mā'ohi Nui from September 2014 until April 2023.

A year of political upheaval

As covered in previous editions of The Indigenous World[12], political polarization came to a head in 2022, when for the first time since their creation, the three Polynesian constituencies were all won by pro-separatist candidates.

During the campaign leading up to the 2023 elections, the trio of pro-separatist Members of Parliament formed a united front and stepped up their communication activities in the field, accompanied by supporters and activists from a wide range of sociological backgrounds. For their part, Tapura and Amuitahiraa, formed an electoral alliance aimed at stemming the blue wave, headed by Oscar Temaru. This was not enough, however and, on 30 April 2023, Tavini won the second round with 44.32% of the votes cast, enabling them to gain 38 of the 57 seats in the Territorial Assembly, and then to appoint Moetai Brotherson as President a few days later. Ten years after pro-separatist candidates last took the reins of the country, and 20 years after their first, brief term in office, the Polynesian political scene was turned upside down.

As the pro-separatist movement has taken power, challenges remain. The movement is widely perceived as a protest force not sufficiently in touch with economic and political realities required to effectively wield power. The President, his ministers and the majority in the Assembly are keen to demonstrate the opposite and are particularly eagerly awaited by their supporters and the opposition on issues such as the budget, cost of living and employment.

2023, being the first year of their mandate, has found the movement facing the question of the link between democracy, the environment and the island’s positioning on the international arena. This included the popular and civil society protest against plans to construct facilities in order to bid for the 2024 Olympic Games[13], facilities which would have a potentially negative impact on the coral reef[14]. Further, at the end of 2023, violent and destructive storms shed light on the government's lack of capacity to address issues of environmental resilience, which will become all the more acute as the impacts of climate change are increasing in frequency and strength.

Land and contemporary Polynesian society

The issue of land tenure, and more specifically land distribution, is very important in Mā'ohi Nui, and generates strong social tensions. The long process of colonization, which began several centuries ago, first led to a breakdown of the pre-colonial land tenure system, and then to the monopolization and concentration of land in the hands of certain families, resulting in deep inequalities in terms of access to housing and the economic gains inherent to the real estate market. Indeed, the unravelling of the collective land management model and the transition to a model of individual legal ownership has, among other mechanisms, created windows of opportunity for European investors to acquire, in some cases even before setting foot in Mā'ohi Nui, sometimes huge swathes of land, the impacts of which continued to be felt in 2023.

The phenomenon is far more complex, however, as land registration has taken a long time to become established, and the designation of individual owners is still a work in progress and far from complete. In fact, the most recent statistics provided by the Polynesian institutions responsible for these issues show that around 1,857 km² of active land plots are registered as undivided ownership[15], i.e. almost 58%[16],[17] of the total area of Polynesian lands. Succession wars within families and between different land claimants are the subject of delicate and complex legal procedures and are the subject of a unique mechanism in France, namely a Land Tribunal specifically dedicated to handling claims and indivision resolution cases. What’s more, the regular absence of a clearly established genealogy concerning the succession of plots of land encourages a multiplication of claimants and, ultimately, of movements for the physical occupation of land, often leading to violent confrontations. 2023 saw the introduction of a draft law on trusts, which has been promoted by the Minister in charge of Land Affairs, Tearii Te Moana Alpha, and which it is hoped will help to address these land issues.[18]

The UN and the right to self-determination

2023 saw a marked change in regard to the issue of independence[19]. The arrival of Brotherson, following the 2023 elections, suggests a renewed investment on the part of the territory and pro-separatist players in the UN institutional process of decolonization. Indeed, the new President places great emphasis on international relations and, in particular, on multilateral cooperation, as part of his political agenda. In this respect, the meeting of the UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee in October 2023[20] was an important moment in his first months as head of a country with a pro-separatist majority. To mark the occasion, the largest Polynesian delegation ever, led by Brotherson and comprising several Tavini heavyweights, attended the debates.

For the first time since 2013, France ended its “empty chair” policy and sent a representative to sit on the Committee. After delivering a speech reiterating France's position on the illegitimacy of the aforementioned Committee's management of Polynesian affairs and Mā'ohi Nui's place on the list of non-self-governing territories[21], the representative left the room without attending the rest of the debate. The assessment of this situation differs according to the members of the Polynesian delegation. Brotherson welcomed the change in France’s negotiating method and saw it as the first step in a slow process towards a change of position. Temaru, however, described the French envoy's attitude as a “disgrace”,[22] thus illustrating both the differences of approach between the Tavini leadership and the mixed results of this first meeting early on in their mandate. To reinforce the work of the UN Committee, the Territorial Assembly has set up a special commission on decolonization to study all the related issues facing Mā'ohi Nui.[23]

The consequences of nuclear testing

The 193 aerial and underground nuclear tests carried out in Mā'ohi Nui between 1966 and 1996 by the French state, which had terrible consequences for the inhabitants both then and now, still form the object of struggles to obtain compensation for the victims and political recognition of their health consequences.[24]

At the same time, people suffering from radiation-induced illnesses have had difficulty in establishing a causal link between their illness and the nuclear tests, and therefore in obtaining compensation.[25] The compensation process for victims of nuclear testing, insufficiently supported by the Morin law, has not seen the necessary changes demanded by pro-separatist representatives, whose proposed constitutional modifications have been rejected by the central government and did not result in a change to the French constitution. Moreover, the current government’s official recognition of the ethical failings of past French governments is still not on the agenda, although it is eagerly awaited by a significant proportion of the population.[26]



Jules Gautheron is a doctoral student in sociology at the Centre d'Études Sociologiques sur le Droit et les Institutions Pénales (CNRS/Ministry of Justice/UVSQ/CY University) and the Centre Maurice Halbwachs (CNRS/EHESS/ENS). Originally from the island of Ra'iātea, his thesis focuses on the constitution of post-colonial relations between the French state and Mā'ohi Nui through the day-to-day actions of local security and justice actors, foremost among them the police and judges. Studied from an ethnographic angle, the issues raised intersect with the sociology of the overseas state, coloniality, race, security and justice.


This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Every five years, the Territory's registered residents vote to elect their representatives to the Territorial Assembly. These representatives are grouped into lists that share the 57 seats in proportion to the results obtained at the polls. Once installed, the representatives vote for a President, who also holds a five-year term of office and has the ability to appoint a government divided into several ministries.

[2]Institute of Statistics (ISPF), June 2021, Point Études et Bilans de la Polynésie française, No.1256 Bilan démographique. The last census noting “ethnic” categories dates from 1988: “Polynesians and similar” accounted for 80.58%, “Europeans and similar” 13.28% and “Asians and similar” 5.42%.

[3] Ibid.

[4] ISPF, 2017, Budget des familles: http://www.ispf.pf/bases/enquetes-menages/budget-des-familles-2015/publications

[5] Tahiti Infos, 2 September 2019, “Les inégalités de revenus bien plus fortes au Fenua qu’en métropole”.

[6] ISPF, November 2023, Points études et bilans de la Polynésie française, No. 1391: 1391_Comparaison_spatiale_de_prix_PF_2022_aa73dbdc08.pdf (ispf.pf)

[7] ISPF, November 2023, Points conjoncture de la Polynésie française, No.1398: 1398_PC_Te_Aveia_2023_T2_4dfc9eab3a.pdf (ispf.pf)

[8] Jaspard M., Brown E., Pourette D., 2004. Les violences envers les femmes dans le cadre du couple en Polynésie française, Espace, populations, sociétés, 2, pp.325-341.
In 2004, 7% had experienced at least one sexual assault before the age of 15, and 7% had experienced domestic violence in the last twelve months.

[9] Hervouet, Lucille, “Qui suis-je pour juger? La production sociale du silence autour des violences sexuelles intrafamiliales en Polynésie française”, Terrains & Travaux 2022, pp.67-87.

[10] Tahiti Infos, 10 March 2016, “Pay associé: Gaston Flosse présente son rêve statutaire”.

[11]Le Monde. “En Polynésie, Gaston Flosse définitivement condamné pour détournement de fonds publics.” 12 January 2022. https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2022/01/12/en-polynesie-gaston-flosse-definitivement-condamne-pour-detournement-de-fonds-publics61092053224.html

[12] Malogne-Fer, Gwendoline, Jules Gautheron. “The Indigenous World 2023: French Polynesia.” The Indigenous World 2023, edited by Dwayne Mamo. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2023, https://iwgia.org/en/french-polynesia/5144-iw-2023-french-polynesia.html

[13] The Guardian. “Tahiti Surf Tower Sparks Protests Against Olympics ‘Kooks’ Before Paris 2024,” The Guardian, October 27, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2023/oct/27/tahiti-surf-tower-sparks-protests-against-olympics-kooks-before-paris-2024

[14] Le Monde. “Olympics 2024: French Polynesia President Suggests Replanning Surfing Venue,” Le Monde.Fr, November 8, 2023, https://www.lemonde.fr/en/sports/article/2023/11/08/olympics-2024-french-polynesia-president-suggests-replanning-surf-competition-venue_6237541_9.html

[15] In French law, indivision refers to a legal situation in which the division of land assets between the parties has not been recorded, resulting in a situation of paralysis whereby the assets cannot be used freely by any of the parties.

[16] Ministry of Agriculture and Land, in charge of research and the Department for Land Affairs (DAF), “Typologie de l'indivision successorale en Polynésie française”.

[17] “Affaires Foncières - Le Pays Présente Un Projet De Texte Relatif À La Fiducie,” La Présidence De La Polynésie Française, n.d., https://www.presidence.pf/affaires-foncieres-le-pays-presente-un-projet-de-texte-relatif-a-la-fiducie/

[18] Idem

[19] For an overview of the self-determination discourse and fourth committee process in the French Polynesia see previous editions of the Indigenous World: Malogne-Fer, Gwendoline. “The Indigenous World 2019: French Polynesia.” The Indigenous World 2019, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 242–249. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2019, https://www.iwgia.org/en/french-polynesia/3418-iw2019-french-polynesia.html; Malogne-Fer, Gwendoline. “The Indigenous World 2020: French Polynesia.” The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 606–612. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2020, https://www.iwgia.org/en/french-polynesia/3643-iw-2020-french-polynesia.html; Malogne-Fer, Gwendoline. “The Indigenous World 2021: French Polynesia.” The Indigenous World 2021, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 599–606. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2021, https://www.iwgia.org/en/french-polynesia/4219-iw-2021-french-polynesia.html; Malogne-Fer, Gwendoline. “The Indigenous World 2022: French Polynesia.” The Indigenous World 2022, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 592–599. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2022, https://www.iwgia.org/en/french-polynesia/4687-iw-2022-french-polynesia.html

[20] “Representatives, Petitioners From Four Non-Self-Governing Territories Set Out Their Perspectives to Fourth Committee.” UN Press, 3 October 2023, https://press.un.org/en/2023/gaspd776.doc.htm

[21] Idem

[22] “Réunion de la quatrième Commission de l’ONU: Brotherson satisfait, Temaru irrité”, TNTV, 03 October 2023.

[23] Assemblée De La Polynésie Française. n.d. “Commissions Intérieures - Assemblée De La Polynésie Française.” http://www.assemblee.pf/travaux/commissions. ; Perdrix, Caroline. 2023. “Assemblée : La Commission Spéciale Sur La Décolonisation Est Créée - Radio1 Tahiti.” Radio1 Tahiti. 27 October 2023, https://www.radio1.pf/assemblee-la-commission-speciale-sur-la-decolonisation-est-creee/

[24] FranceInfo. 2023. “Rapport Du Civen 2022: Plus De Victimes Reconnues Et Davantage D’indemnisations - Polynésie La 1ère.” Polynésie La 1ère, 11 July 2023, https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/polynesie/tahiti/polynesie-francaise/rapport-du-civen-2022-plus-de-victimes-reconnues-et-davantage-d-indemnisations-1413263.html

[25] La Rédaction. 2023. “Nucléaire : Plus De Demandes, Pas Plus D’indemnisations Par Le Civen - Radio1 Tahiti.” Radio1 Tahiti. 13 July 2023. https://www.radio1.pf/nucleaire-plus-de-demandes-pas-plus-dindemnisations-par-le-civen/

[26] FranceInfo. 2023. “Nucléaire : Tematai Legayic Interpelle L’État Sur Les Indemnisations - Polynésie La 1ère.” Polynésie La 1ère, 23 May 2023, https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/polynesie/tahiti/polynesie-francaise/nucleaire-tematai-legayic-interpelle-l-etat-sur-les-indemnisations-1398362.html; Perdrix, Caroline. 2023. “Moetai Brotherson : « Je Suis Un Éternel Insatisfait » - Radio1 Tahiti.” Radio1 Tahiti.30 August 2023, https://www.radio1.pf/moetai-brotherson-je-suis-un-eternel-insatisfait/

Tags: Land rights, Human rights, International Processes



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