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REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes

On the island of Tahiti, the party is well under way.

上海性息

It’s Autonomy Day in French Polynesia, an annual celebration of the territory’s limited self-government. But this year, the smiles are a little wider and the enthusiasm more evident and all because of one man – the charismatic new President, Oscar Temaru.

OSCAR TEMARU, PRESIDENT FRENCH POLYNESIA: Just a few words – to say thank you to our brothers and sisters from all around the Pacific. Thank you for joining us.

It’s the first time in French Polynesia’s history that a pro-independence leader has won control and his election represents the most serious threat to the influence of Tahiti’s former colonial masters in Paris. But despite his dream of an independent Tahiti, Temaru has taken a step back.

REPORTER: As soon as you were elected, you said, “Look, we don’t want independence in 10 years, maybe even 15 years,” so why have you pulled back from the independence?

OSCAR TEMARU: Because we have been through different elections and we pushed the people to go forward and we know the numbers of the people who support that idea, so I know what is the feeling the majority of the people in this country, so we decided to go step by step, and try to, let’s say, demonstrate to the people of this country our capacity to manage this country. That’s the idea.

ALEX DUPRELLE, EDITOR OF TAHITI PACIFIQUE: We have again with Oscar Temaru, the Tahitian people who are back to power. Now it will be very interesting in the upcoming months to see what the reactions are in Paris, because Paris is very unsatisfied with this situation.

As editor of the magazine ‘Tahiti Pacifique’, Alex Duprelle has been charting local politics on Tahiti for nearly two decades, a period that was dominated by the rule of former president Gaston Flosse and allegations of fiscal waste and mismanagement.

DUPRELLE: If many of the French taxpayer would know how their money is spent over here, there would be a revolution in France, but it’s all kept quiet,

A close friend of President Chirac, Flosse’s administration was tarnished by countless allegations of pork-barrelling and corruption. In recent years, he splurged on limousines and presidential aircraft. He also built himself a palace at a cost of $90 million, all part of his grand vision.

Oscar Temaru’s victory was clear, but former president Flosse was ungracious in defeat, continuing his protests throughout Temaru’s inauguration.

Bitter at his removal, Flosse launched a legal battle to annul the election, while a shocked French Government sent police reinforcements to the island, fearing civil unrest. Now, more than a month after his election, Oscar Temaru is still in awe of his rapid change in fortune.

OSCAR TEMARU: I said to myself something will happen, I don’t know what, but something will happen.

REPORTER: And here it is? Now, the French sent extra gendarmerie here. It was a very tense time, wasn’t it, for a few weeks? So do you think that they were overreacting?

OSCAR TEMARU: Yes, because…their man here is Gaston Flosse and they were sure that he was going to win again this election. So it was a fight between David and Goliath, believe me, it was a fight between David and Goliath.

Even though France poured a lot of money into Flosse’s government, it was used more to subsidise a lifestyle than to develop the country.

OSCAR TEMARU: Look at this palace? It has cost to the people 6 billion francs, that’s about, oh, US$60 million. How many fishing boats could we have bought with this huge money, you know? That was the way Gaston Flosse has managed this country.

Tourism is one of the few viable industries in Polynesia that has benefited from French largesse, but the benefits are not equally shared. From the harboured confines of their luxury hotels, most of the well-to-do tourists are blissfully unaware that paradise isn’t nearly as much fun for the needy locals.

CLAUDE MARERE (Translation): Our society is – how should I put it? – damaged. There are many poor families in Tahiti. I know, in Faa’ha houses shared by two or three families of 10, 15 or 20 people living on two small salaries below the minimum wage.

The French have a mixed colonial record in French Polynesia, but Oscar Temaru’s official spokesman, Claude Marere, says it’s because of their use of the islands as a nuclear testing ground that France must continue to help financially. Ironically, it was the French nuclear tests that gave birth to Oscar Temaru as a political player.

OSCAR TEMARU: You should handcuff Gaston Flosse and Jacques Chirac.

Oscar Temaru was arrested more than once in his campaign to stop nuclear testing in French Polynesia. When France restarted its nuclear tests in 1995, the tensions boiled over.

SBS REPORT, 1995: As you can see behind me, the situation here at Papeete airport has clearly disintegrated into chaos. Riot police have been firing tear gas at the community supporters here, there’s now a water cannon and the local community are actually charging, setting fire to pieces of the airport, cheering as they do so.

Not content with the airport terminal, rioters moved onto the tarmac. Within hours, the riot was spreading throughout Papeete, with buildings gutted and shops looted. While President Flosse went on the defensive, calling in more French riot police, it was, in fact, Oscar Temaru who successfully appealed to the Tahitian people for calm.

CLAUDE MARERE (Translation): Oscar Temaru is not an easy man to understand. He’s enigmatic. He’s a gentle man. His name, Temaru, means the gentle one, the soft. He has a way of saying things that one must understand. You need to feel Oscar Temaru. You must feel him, quess him.

Preparing to fly off to Paris to meet with the French establishment, Temaru received a taste of things to come when the still-frosty French announced that President Chirac would be too busy to meet with him. But Oscar Temaru was unworried by the rejection from Chirac – he’s not the first Pacific leader to receive a Gallic insult and he’s confident that before too long, France will be forced to return control of French Polynesia to its people.

OSCAR TEMARU: France has to lead its colonies towards their sovereignty. That’s the first mission of all those, let’s say, colonisers’ countries – they have to lead their countries towards their sovereignty.

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