We sat down quietly around the Lazy Susan, taking in the Pepto Bismal pink walls and cough syrup red decor, waiting for more information. There were no riots, as far as we could tell, no uproar. The streets were quiet, the eggrolls were delicious, and the news, though technically indecipherable to me due to the language barrier, did not seem cause for alarm as the voices were clam and the images serene.
But Gaston Flosse, the president of French Polynesia, really was in jail. At that moment, the country had no president. But the Polynesian people didn’t seem to give a damn, happily munching on their egg rolls and slurping their egg drop soup. Perhaps the disinterest resulted from the fact that Flosse had been arrested before (he’s been on trial 15 times in his 83 years), so it wasn’t really a surprise to anyone that he had been accused of running a ring of shadow jobs that, through fraudulent payroll receipts, raked in millions of Pacific Francs.
But the apathy, I believe, is also the result of the geopolitical history of the country, which has cultivated a culture of disempowerment and, subsequently, disinterest in matters of both national and international affairs. French Polynesia is comprised of 118 islands and atolls in 5 archipelagos across 1,500 miles of Pacific Ocean. It is, as its name suggests, a part of the French Republic, even though the two respective capitals of Paris and Pape’ete are an astounding 9,757 miles apart.
It was “discovered” towards the end of the 18th century and overtaken, converted to Christianity, and made to speak the conquerer’s language. The beautiful beaches and turquoise waters of destination islands like Tahiti and Bora Bora made the islands attractive to early explorers, and later to tourists from around the globe in desperate need of rest and relaxation. That very tourism industry, responsible for so many killer tans, has effectively served as a fun house mirror, distorting centuries of colonial oppression, decades of nuclear testing, and years of economic and political strife into a paradisal image perfect for a postcard.
The country is overseen by a so-called “autonomous” government, supposedly responsible for its own affairs. But citizens laugh at the word “autonomie,” deride the politicians who pretend to believe in it, for they know full well that it is an elaborate charade. The citizens of French Polynesia recognize they are not truly independent, and therefore not ultimately responsible for their successes or their failures, they feel no need to worry over such matters. The French metropole, for better or worse, will handle all the details. This cynicism was shortly reinforced by the pronouncement from Europe: Flosse was sentenced to 4 years in prison and a fine of 15 million francs.
Finally, there is a pervasive sense that people have resigned themselves to their fate. This, they seem to think, is just the way things work. Flosse is a “demi,” meaning he has both white (in his case, French) and Tahitian ancestry. This is the social class that rules the country. Though many of them speak the native language of Reo Ma’ohi and practice many old customs, including the celebrating of traditional song, dance, and Tahitian food, they are seen as sell-outs, having adopted wholesale the ways of the white man. They speak French with strong accents, are educated in the French university system, and have often spent extended time in the motherland. They are the group that negotiated with the French over the terms of atomic testing; they willingly exchanged money for the right to destroy the land and the sea, the people’s true mother. Though they are disliked and untrusted, they have had the power for several generations, and will likely continue to have the power for many generations to come.
When I landed at LAX the next morning, parched and in need of both water and WiFi, I expected to be able to find more information about the arrest and the projected implications for the country. However, I have not been able to find a single report of the incident in English, as the only media coverage seems to becoming from the French Republic. Though I read a few of these articles online with the help of Google Translate, I have found it difficult to grasp the details in the muddled text.
The only update I have received of substance (and I use that word loosely) was from my professor, via email. She said, rather vaguely (or perhaps quite transparently, and there really is just very little to tell), that Flosse has been convicted and sentenced and that it is likely his ex-son-in-law will be the country’s president for the duration of the term.
It seems that events cannot really develop much further from here. Flosse is in jail and will stay for quite some time. If he remains behind bars for the full-length of his sentence, he will be 87 years old upon his release. In the coming weeks, a new president will step up and likely bring about a few superficial changes to the face of the old, immovable puppet regime. And the people of French Polynesia will continue to go about their daily lives: listening to the legends of the great Polynesian warriors around the dinner table and reading about the conquests of Napoleon in history class.
Update: My latest Google search actually turned up news items written for English audiences, courtesy of Australian and New Zealand media outlets. The most recent updates say that Flosse's suspension is still valid, but the request for an appeal has been sent to French President Francois Hollande. Hollande has not yet notified Flosse of his decision.
*Yes, I’m referencing a Fergie song in my title. His name is actually pronounced like dental floss, but lets forget this little discrepancy and just pump up the jam.