In French Polynesia, long-time independence leader Oscar Manutahi Temaru is again locked in battle with the French legal system. Last month, Temaru launched a two-week hunger strike, in protest over the seizure of his personal finances by French prosecutor Hervé Leroy.
For French authorities, the latest actions are part of a long-running case over the funding of the pro-independence radio station Radio Tefana by the municipality of Faa’a, where Temaru has been mayor for nearly 40 years. In contrast, Temaru sees the actions of French judicial authorities as political rather than legal – payback for his protests on decolonisation and nuclear testing that have embarrassed successive French leaders.
In October 2018, Temaru lodged a complaint before the International Criminal Court, accusing the French state of committing a crime against humanity, through France’s nuclear weapons testing program in the Pacific (between 1966 and 1996, France conducted 193 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls). At the time, Temaru said: “This case aims to hold all the living French presidents accountable for the nuclear tests against our country.”
Since then, he has faced a series of legal battles and accusations of corruption, that have tied up the veteran politician in legal red-tape.
Legal battles continue
In 2019, Temaru was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and was fined $US50,000 for exercising so-called undue influence. The court found that financial support from Faa’a town council to Radio Tefana benefitted the independence party Tavini Huiraatira no Te Ao Maohi, which Temaru has led since its founding.
Across the francophone Pacific, it’s common for local and territorial governments to fund independent community radio stations, to broaden public debate beyond the state-run French radio and TV stations. Both supporters and opponents of independence commonly provide grants to radio stations, such as Radio RRB and Radio Djiido in New Caledonia, or Radio Tefana and Radio Maohi in Tahiti. Temaru’s supporters note that the regulation of such funding is unevenly enforced, with differing penalties for breaches (French Polynesia’s current president Edouard Fritch received a much lighter penalty in 2016, when the municipality of Pirae was criticised for funding Radio Maohi).
Despite this, French prosecutor Herve Leroy re-opened Temaru’s case in September last year, asserting that he had misspent taxpayer funds, because the Faa’a municipal council had funded his defence during the 2019 court case over the community radio station.
Last month, Temaru was again called before the court, and on 4 June, prosecutor Leroy ordered the seizure of 11.5 million French Pacific Francs (US$108,000) from Temaru’s personal bank account. Leroy stated: “This step, known as ‘value confiscation’, has allowed us to seize the exact amount of public funds improperly charged to the budget of the municipality of Faa’a for legal fees and expenses in the case for which he was prosecuted and convicted at first instance.”
Launching a hunger strike on 8 June, Temaru argued that because the 2019 case was still on appeal, the prosecutor had violated the presumption of innocence. Seeking a judicial review of Leroy’s actions, Temaru stated: “He shows no respect. I’ve been Mayor of Faa’a for 37 years and I’m as white as snow…He only has one objective, and that’s to blacken the name of me and my family. The intention behind all this is to assassinate me politically. I would prefer that he just grabs a pistol and kills me, then we won’t have to talk about it anymore.”
Moetai Brotherson represents French Polynesia in the French National Assembly in Paris. A member of Tavini Huiraatira, Brotherson told Islands Business that the case was politically motivated.
“It’s the latest episode of a very sad witch hunt that has been undertaken by the French prosecutor here,” he said. “In the latest instalment, they have decided to seize all of Mr. Temaru’s savings from his bank account. They are saying that it’s a preventative measure because they are fearing that he might flee the country or dissipate this money.”
Questioning why funds from a personal account were seized, rather than from his lawyers, Brotherson ridiculed the suggestion from French authorities that Temaru might flee the jurisdiction.
“This is totally ridiculous, of course,” he said. “Mr. Temaru was born here, his whole family is here. He is Mayor of Faa’a and has been Mayor of Faa’a for 37 years now. So, he’s not going anywhere – especially without planes [due to COVID lockdown]. He doesn’t want to go anywhere. He’s always turned up to when he’s been asked to appear before the French courts. This is ridiculous and it’s only an attempt at intimidation.”
The dispute highlights the nature of colonial control over legal structures in France’s overseas collectivities. Unlike the local Government of French Polynesia, which holds a level of legislative and administrative authority under the 2004 Statute of Autonomy, local commun or municipal town councils are still controlled by the French State. Authorities in Paris determine the timing of local government elections and French law applies to the regulation and management of town councils. All French nationals can vote in municipal elections.
This year, for example, Paris delayed the second round of scheduled council elections in March due to the coronavirus crisis. This angered local politicians in French Polynesia, who argued that conditions in Tahiti were different to those in France, which has suffered more than 160,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nearly 30,000 deaths.
The debate over the autonomy of municipal government has raged for decades, especially as many public services jobs are allocated through town councils, rather than the territorial government. This provides opportunity for leaders to build a political base, while French authorities argue the allocation of employment can lead to nepotism or corruption.
In French Polynesia, town halls often become a fiefdom, with political leaders across the political spectrum holding office as mayor for long periods. Many leaders have built a political base in a particular municipality: Tahoera’a Huiraatira’s Gaston Flosse served as Mayor of Pirae from 1965 to 2000 and was succeeded as mayor by Edouard Fritch, his former son-in-law and current President of French Polynesia. In May, former President Gaston Tong Sang was re-elected as Mayor of Bora Bora for his sixth consecutive term. Since he was first elected in 1983, Oscar Temaru has repeatedly served as Mayor of Faa’a, a working class district close to the capital Papeete, which hosts Tahiti’s international airport.
This dispute raises the question of the use of the courts for political purposes, even though in French constitutional law, the subjective and objective impartiality of judges and prosecutors is presumed in law. People brought before a court can only seek the recusal of a judicial officer if they have objective evidence of their bias.
Despite these principles, many Tahitian voters perceive the courts as an institution of the popa’a (Europeans from mainland France), and argue that France’s notoriously bureaucratic administrative and legal culture is inappropriate in a Pacific context. The latest dispute is not the first to question the impartiality of French legal authorities in Tahiti, which has been challenged many times by autonomist as well as pro-independence politicians.
First elected as President in 1984, Gaston Flosse loyally defended France through the era of French nuclear testing. Flosse faced many allegations of corruption throughout the decades, but was widely perceived as protected by the French State, with allegations of corruption never ending in convictions (the late French President Jacques Chirac was godfather to Flosse’s children). It was only after the end of testing in 1996, that French legal authorities began winning convictions against Flosse in cases of corruption or abuse of public office.
In recent years, Flosse has repeatedly accused French legal authorities of bias and partiality against him. In 2016, in a rare occurrence, the president of the Court of Appeal in Papeete Régis Vouaux-Massel formally rejected Flosse’s accusations, stating: “It must be understood that magistrates judge cases in total independence and do not receive instruction from anyone. This independence is guaranteed to all French citizens, whoever they are, and there is no exception in Papeete as elsewhere.”
Despite such declarations, Moetai Brotherson still regards the actions of the French Prosecutor as biased: “I wish there was another explanation, but we have to be realistic. This is nothing but political retaliation, because Mr. Temaru has put all the French Presidents before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for the nuclear testing.”
There are many people in Tahiti who do not support Temaru politically, but in a political culture rife with examples of overt corruption, he is widely seen as someone who has not benefitted personally from public office. Moetai Brotherson said that during his hunger strike, Temaru received public and private support from many people outside his own party.
“During the two weeks of hunger strike, we’ve seen leaders of the church coming to pay a visit and give their support to Mr. Temaru,” Brotherson said. “We’ve seen leaders from the unions and we’ve received messages from most political leaders here, even though they wouldn’t say so publicly. We’ve also received messages of support from Corsica, New Zealand, Australia, from the Maori people and other leaders from the Pacific.”
From New Caledonia, the leading independence party Union Calédonienne issued a call for solidarity with the Maohi leader: “Let us recall the long tradition of the instrumentalisation of the law against autonomist or independence leaders. In October 1959, Pouvana’a a Oopa, who was protesting against the looming nuclear tests, was severely punished in the courts. He was only rehabilitated in 2014 by the Court of Administrative Appeal, because his trial had relied on false evidence. Oscar Temaru is continuing his struggle. We call for solidarity from all democrats against this authoritarian trend from France, and we say that the rule of law must apply in overseas France.”
The dispute comes the very month that the French Senate is – once again – amending the 2010 Morin Law that established the Comité d’indemnisation des victimes des essais nucléaires (CIVEN – Compensation Commission for Nuclear Test Victims). In the first few years of operation, provisions said that there was “negligible risk” of radioactive contamination from French testing. This meant the failure of more than 95 per cent of initial compensation cases lodged by Maohi workers who staffed the Moruroa and Fangataufa test sites. This provision was removed in 2017, but new amendments in December 2018 further restricted access to compensation.
During his scheduled visit to Tahiti last April – postponed during the COVID crisis – President Emmanuel Macron was expected to face public protests over the delays in fixing the legislation. France is still under pressure from the workers’ association Moruroa e Tatou as well as Association 193, a new anti-nuclear group mobilising young people in Tahiti.
As Islands Business goes to press, the case is continuing and may even be relocated to Paris. For Moetai Brotherson, the current legal harassment of Oscar Temaru aims to scare away a younger generation from campaigning on nuclear issues, even as young Tahitians are picking up the torch following the recent deaths of long-time anti-nuclear campaigners John Taroanui Doom, Bruno Barrillot and Roland Oldham.
“By putting so much undue pressure on Oscar Temaru because of his fight against nuclear testing, they are also trying to scare a younger generation by sending a message,” said Brotherson. “If you get involved in this nuclear testing fight, you will lose. I think that’s the very strong political message that the French state is sending with Mr. Temaru’s case.”