Dec 13, 2017 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Dec 12, 2017

Conviction drives veteran politician out

After exhausting all avenues of appeal, President Gaston Flosse of French Polynesia has been removed from office following his conviction for misappropriation of public funds. The decision ends the career of the dominant figure in French Polynesia’s political life since the 1960s. Flosse was a fierce opponent of independence for French Polynesia and a champion of France’s 30-year nuclear testing programme. In the post-nuclear era, he was a close friend and political ally of former French President Jacques Chirac, but the election of Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 and Francois Hollande in 2012 weakened his political protection by the French state.

Flosse was convicted last year in a case of “ghost employees,” receiving a four-year suspended prison sentence, 125,000 fine and three years loss of civic rights. Because of his age, Flosse did not face imprisonment, but the loss of civic rights would make him ineligible to serve as President. Last April, the French Senate lifted his parliamentary immunity, opening the way for the application of his sentence. After a legal appeal to the Cour de Cassation in Paris was rejected in July, Flosse appealed for a presidential pardon from President Hollande. However the Socialist Party leader refused to grant this pardon and on September 5, the French High Commissioner in Papeete announced that Flosse would be removed from office.

This was not the only legal case involving a politician who began life as a simple teacher and ended as a multi-millionaire. In recent years, Flosse has been under investigation or charged with offences over the misuse of public funds in the sale of Anuanuraro atoll and the construction of the Taaone Hospital; and the use of public funds from Pirae municipality to provide water to his villa. In another case, he was convicted in the Office of Postal and Telecommunications (OPT) affair, involving the payment of nearly US$2 million of kickbacks from businessman Hubert Haddad.

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Flosse tries to move shrine from park

Even though the last nuclear test in the Pacific was conducted nearly 20 years ago, the commemoration of the atomic era still causes debate in French Polynesia. President Gaston Flosse of the Tahoeraa Huiraatira Party has caused a storm by proposing to remove a memorial to nuclear testing from a park in central Papeete. The debate about remembering France’s 193 nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls came as the Flosse Government celebrated 30 years of autonomy in June, following the introduction of a French autonomy statute for French Polynesia in 1984. The memorial to survivors of nuclear testing is located in a waterfront park known as the Place de 2 Juillet 1966.

This area was first created in 2003 and originally called Place Chirac, after the French President who was a close political ally of President Flosse. After the election of French Polynesia’s first anti-nuclear president Oscar Temaru in 2004, the area was renamed to commemorate 2 July 1966, the date of France’s first nuclear test in the South Pacific. On 2 July 2006, a memorial to survivors of nuclear testing was inaugurated at the centre of the park by then President Temaru, witnessed by politicians from France, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. At the opening ceremony, Aotearoa activist Hilda Halkyard-Harawira sang a Maori waiata and the memorial site was blessed by Raymond Graf, a traditional Tahitian priest who consecrated the ground.

In the memorial, French Polynesia’s five archipelagos are symbolised by stones placed on a traditional paepae, with carved wooden totems later added to symbolise the link between the earth and sky. As well as commemorating the French nuclear tests, the memorial has a plaque in English, French and Tahitian remembering survivors from other nuclear sites in the Marshall Islands, Australia, Kiribati and Japan. In June this year, as Tahiti commemorated the 30th anniversary of autonomy, the government sparked concern by issuing a decree proposing the removal of the memorial site and the renaming of the park as ‘Place Chirac.’

The perception that the memorial would be destroyed lead to widespread protests, coordinated by Moruroa e Tatou, the association of former workers who staffed the nuclear test sites between 1966 and 1996. Moruroa e Tatou has used the memorial site as a rallying point for public activities, inviting international delegations to participate in commemoration ceremonies every year on 2 July.

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Last December, the United Nations General Assembly addressed France’s nuclear legacy in French Polynesia in its annual statement on decolonisation. The UN resolution “requests the Secretary-General, in cooperation with relevant specialised agencies of the United Nations, to compile a report on the environmental, ecological, health and other impacts as a consequence of the 30-year period of nuclear testing in the territory.” The call for international scrutiny came as France’s Senate passed amendments to the Morin law, the French legislation which governs compensation for people affected by radioactive fallout.

After conducting 17 atmospheric and underground tests in Algeria, France relocated its nuclear test centre to French Polynesia in the early 1960s. For 30 years between 1966 and 1996, France conducted a further 193 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls. After the end of nuclear testing in 1996, citizens groups called on Paris to address the lingering health and environmental impacts of the testing programme. Today, former military and civilian personnel who staffed the nuclear test sites continue to campaign for clean-up of contaminated islands and compensation for people affected by exposure to radiation.

French military personnel formed the Association of Nuclear Test Veterans (AVEN), while in French Polynesia, the Moruroa e Tatou Association links former test site workers to lobby for French compensation. Both groups gained support from the Temaru government after 2004, which established the first French Polynesian inquiry into the health and environmental effects of nuclear testing. The UPLD government also established the Délégation pour le suivi des essais nucléaires (Office to monitor the nuclear tests), led by researcher Bruno Barrillot. However, one of the first acts of the re-elected Flosse government in June 2013 was to dismiss Barrillot and close the office.

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Flosse and Temaru debate economic reform, independence and the nuclear legacy

In French Polynesia, they’re gearing up for next month’s municipal elections. It’s another round in the long-running battle over its future, between President Gaston Flosse and opposition leader Oscar Manutahi Temaru. There’s a range of other politicians seeking re-election to local town halls, but the title bout continues between these longstanding rivals, over economic reform, independence and the legacy of France’s nuclear testing. In elections for French Polynesia’s Assembly last May, Flosse won 38 of 57 seats in a compelling victory over Temaru’s Union pour la Démocratie (UPLD or Union for Democracy) with 11 seats and A Ti’a Porinetia with eight seats. Voters were angry over the outgoing government’s management of the territory’s fiscal crisis, declining tourism and growing unemployment. They were also tired of musical chairs in parliament, with 11 changes of government over the last decade. Since then, President Flosse has been everywhere. His administration has negotiated new loans from Paris worth 5 billion CFP French Pacific francs (US$57 million). Last year, Flosse was chosen to chair the Polynesian Leaders Group and has offered to host a secretariat in Papeete for the sub-regional organisation. In December, Flosse led a delegation to China, wooing trade, tourism and investment. His Tahoera’a Huiraatira Party is poised to do well in the March municipal elections.

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Gaston Flosse says his government in French Polynesia will start paying unemployment benefits of up to US$1100 a month. Flosse made the announcement last month, within days of being elected back into power. “To implement this, we will tax big companies with billions (of Pacific francs) in turnover per year.” “It is up to them to help the poor,” Flosse told Tahiti Nui Television, after winning nearly 41% of the vote. Such a measure would target businesses with revenues over US$10 million.

Unemployed youth under 30 will get US$880 a month, while those over 30 get the larger amount. This adds to existing payments aimed at the elderly and young families, along with housing and other state support under the CPS, or Social Security Fund, with a budget of around US$130 million. Once considered a close ally of big businesses and the French state, Flosse reinforced populist themes by choosing employment and welfare as his first two portfolios. It remains to be seen whether Flosse can push through the benefit plan, or even stay in power.

Nicknamed the ‘Old Lion’ in the French press and fighting corruption charges, Flosse faces an uncertain future, despite winning 38 out of 57 seats. Ruling Socialist Party MP René Dosière described the election of Flosse as “shameful” for France. With the new Hollande government valuing “integrity and transparency in politics”, Dosière said, “it would not be acceptable that the old practices of corruption and theft of public money for personal use reappear in French Polynesia.” Flosse successfully turned frustration over a flat economy and fear of independence into a “grand victory”

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