Moetai Brotherson seeks presidency in French Polynesia

Moetai Brotherson

Moetai Brotherson of the independence party Tavini Huira’atira no Te Ao Ma’ohi has announced he will run for the Presidency of French Polynesia.

The post is currently held by President Edouard Fritch of the Tapura Huira’atira party, who has held office in Tahiti since 2014.

Brotherson, who currently represents French Polynesia in the French National Assembly in Paris, will seek the endorsement of his party at a Tavini congress on 18 March, in order to challenge Fritch for the top job after local Assembly elections in April.

The current leader of Tavini Huira’atira is long-time independence politician and anti-nuclear campaigner Oscar Manutahi Temaru. However, aged 78 and suffering ill health, the old lion of French Polynesian politics is opening the way for a new generation.

“Oscar is the first person who proposed that I should run for the presidency,” Brotherson told Islands Business. “During an internal party debate about four weeks ago, he was the one who proposed that I should stand for President.”

Any elected member of the Assembly of French Polynesia can nominate for the presidency, but Brotherson said “practically speaking, there are only three serious candidates that are possible for Tavini: Oscar Temaru, of course, then Tony Geros who is the current party vice president and the third one is myself.”

Elections for the 57 members of the Assembly of French Polynesia will be held over two rounds on 16 and 30 April. The Assembly then elects the President of the government of the French Pacific dependency, who serves a five-year term.

Brotherson, aged 53, was elected as a member of the Assembly of French Polynesia in 2018. He was also one of three Tavini candidates elected to the French National Assembly in June 2022 – the first time the independence party swept all three seats allocated for French Polynesia in the French legislature in Paris.

Brotherson told Islands Business he was reluctant at first to consider a bid for the presidency.

“At first I refused, because I am already at the French National Assembly and have been elected as the president of the Overseas Territorial Delegation in the French Assembly, which is a first in our history,” he said. “I told everyone that I wanted to focus on this mandate, but Oscar was pretty insistent, and you know the man, he’s kind of determined! Then I started listening to the people, and everywhere I go, I heard that people want change and they think I represent that change.”

Brotherson and Oscar Temaru

Mobilising a new generation

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21, tourism to French Polynesia collapsed, unemployment rose and the five archipelagos suffered the highest per capita rates of death and infection of any Pacific island nation. Many voters were dismayed by the failure of the Fritch government to manage the social and economic fallout of the pandemic, and the Tapura party was punished by voters at the 2022 National Assembly elections.

Brotherson believes that Tavini’s unprecedented electoral victory last June was driven by people who did not normally vote for the independence party: “I don’t think that all the people who voted for us in the second round are pro-independence. I think a lot of people voted for us because we presented young candidates and we presented a program of change. If we use the same method in April that we used for the previous elections, we may win by a landslide, but of course if we make mistakes, the results will differ.”

Last year’s election saw a significant generational shift in Tahiti and Moorea, with 21-year-old Tematai Le Gayic beating long-time autonomist politician Nicole Bouteau, a former tourism minister in the Fritch government. Le Gayic is now the youngest member of the French National Assembly (a widely shared YouTube video shows his mother on a surprise trip from Tahiti to Paris for the first day he entered parliament – she gives her son lunch for his first day at work)!

Oscar Temaru won the presidency of French Polynesia in 2004, but moved in and out of power over eleven years, due to a series of no-confidence motions and parliamentary manoeuvring in the local Assembly. At the time of Temaru’s election, then French Overseas Minister Brigitte Girardin reportedly threatened to “turn off the taps” of financial support from Paris to Tahiti, to undermine the pro-independence government.

Nearly a decade later, Brotherson believes that the current French government remains opposed to a Tavini victory in April: “We feel that France is throwing everything that they have to ensure that Tapura succeeds in the upcoming election.”

Despite this, he argues “there’s already division within President Fritch’s party, or what remains of it.”

In recent months, some former Fritch ministers and loyalists have left Tapura Huira’atira to create separate anti-independence parties, including Nicole Sanquer, Teva Rohfritch and Nicole Bouteau. Fritch also faces electoral harassment from his former patron and father-in-law Gaston Flosse, who served as President of French Polynesia for five terms as leader of the Tāho’era’a Huira’atira party. Aged 91, Flosse will return to the electoral battlefield again next month with his new party Amuitahira’a o te Nuna’a Ma’ohi.

It’s early days yet and the formal election campaign has not begun, but Brotherson believes the autonomist parties will remain divided, assisting his bid for the presidency: “Even those remaining in Tapura are fighting amongst themselves, and [former Vice President] Tearii Alpha is not happy. For the politicians who have left Tapura, they’re not going to get married again.”

Indo-Pacific strategy

If Tavini can mobilise enough votes to win a majority in April’s Assembly elections and then clinch the presidency, it will be a major setback for French President Emmanuel Macron and his Indo-Pacific strategy.

French Overseas Minister Emmanuel Darmanin has just completed a week’s visit to New Caledonia, meeting political leaders to discuss the French dependency’s political status after the Noumea Accord. However, Darmanin failed to schedule a meeting with President Louis Mapou, the first Kanak independence leader to head the Government of New Caledonia in 40 years.

President Macron is scheduled to travel again to the Pacific after July, but the prospect of pro-independence presidents in both Noumea and Papeete is a nightmare for French policymakers, as they seek to expand France’s role in the region at a time of U.S.-China geopolitical contest.

“Kanaky is a very touchy subject at the moment and everything could go very bad, very quick over there,” Brotherson said. “If they lose Kanaky, the only remaining French stronghold in the Pacific would be us, so of course, they want to make sure that any threat to the French presence in the Pacific is pushed aside. We see what France is doing to support Tapura Huira’atira, but will this be enough? I don’t think so.”

Brotherson told Islands Business there was still momentum for change, but it will be vital to mobilise younger voters to turn out for April’s elections.

“I think that for the upcoming election, the same recipe should be used,” he said. “We should put forward a younger generation and we should put forward a proposal for change.”