The end of the 'Flosse system'?

Ce mois-ci, nous faisons un pas de côté. Nous proposons un article sur le Pacifique. Bien que cette région ne soit pas incluse dans le champ des études asiatiques, elle éclaire quelques enjeux qui se posent en Asie.

The Polynesian archipelagos (276 831 inhabitants)
cover around five million km²
which approximates Western Europe's surface
(© 2008 / L. Claudel, under a Creative Commons license)

After losing his mandates on the 5th September in 2014, it seems that the personal rule of Gaston Flosse in the Overseas Collectivity of French Polynesia is apparently declining.

Gaston Flosse represents a main political figure whose reputation has travelled over the Polynesian borders. Sometimes diabolized in the Medias as the “most corrupted politician of the French Republic”, or presented as “the father of modern French Polynesia” for his sycophants, his political career of more than fifty years (1957-2014...) is explained by the mobilization of many political skills - for example, his personal resources (workaholic, sense of humor, eloquence). So the political entrepreneur could accumulate the mandates and the power positions. Able to be the interface between the local government and the national and international fields, he presents himself as a shield for France against the independentist party in Paris, while he vehemently criticized the French State in Tahiti.

As a South Pacific minister in Chirac's government (1986-1988), he used the republican diplomacy for his own political enterprise; he also built a Polynesian diplomacy under the name of “President of Tahiti Nui” (“The Great Tahiti”). He developed international relations with most important Asiatic countries, such as South Korea (several businesses), Japan (pearl culture, tourism) and China (boats purchase, touristic and fish farming projects).

Gaston Flosse under the portrait of Pomare V, last Tahitian monarch,
during his comeback as president of French Polynesia (2013-2014).
(© 2014 /Serge Massau)

Gaston Flosse was educated with both Polynesian and French cultures. He became the “political son” of the lawyer Rudy Bambridge from 1958, who was connected to the Gaullists networks, especially with Jacques Foccart, General de Gaulle right-and man. Thus, he developed a political position representing the Tahitian oligarchy. In 197, he reorganized the party called the Tahoeraa Huiraatira (“Rassemblement Populaire”), which represented the Tahitian segment of the RPR ("Rassemblement pour le République”, led by Jacques Chirac). The political party represents an electoral machine that locks down all archipelagos.

Although Gaston Flosse was fiercely opposed to the Autonomist movement since the 1960's, he declared himself officially as an Autonomist in March 1980. This conversion allows him the conquest of local power in 1982. Then, he negotiated with the State to get more and more competences (in particular in economic matters), and, at least, symbolic attributes of the State (flag, hymn...). Several Autonomy statutes between 1984 and 2004 confirmed the extension of the French Polynesia president powers, especially with the organic law of the 27th of February 2004. The electoral legal dispositions of the statute - adopted hastily and without a sufficient dialogue degree - turned against his instigator in the local elections of May 2004. The coalition led by the independentist leader Oscar Temaru sent back Gaston Flosse in the opposition. The political transition also named as “Taui” (change) put into light the “Flosse system”, after a succession of audits, inquests and the liberation of free speech in the public space.

The “Flosse system” means a distinctive type of political domination illustrated by an authoritarian leadership that came to a personal rule in a democratic regime. The advent of such a personal rule is closely linked to the State complicity and to the links to his “brother” Jacques Chirac, who is the godfather of a Flosses' son named “Jacques”. When Chirac is elected at the French presidential election in 1995, the fusion of both local and national political powers increases the authoritarian way of governing in Tahiti, where the leader is protected by the French presidency. This authoritarian leadership came out in a political space characterized by the weight of personal and familial relations, and a notability microcosm, which are encouraging a public and private resources straddling. This social configuration may partly explain the high level of neopatrimonialism in the “Flosse system”: clientelism lived as a social institution; nepotism, and a multiform corruption. So the French Polynesia president was sometimes referred as the “Godfather” in Tahiti. By the way, the neopatrimonial approach calls for a Tahitian “Big Man” conception . He converts his political resources into economic resources, and inversely. He also mobilizes symbolic and “traditional” political resources closed to the “politics of the belly”.

Aerial view of Moorea island, opposite to Tahiti (Society archipelago).
Thetiareflower (gardenia tahitensis) can be seen on the plane's wing.
It is the symbol of the Polynesian airlines Tahiti Nui,
created and developed during Flosse political domination.
(© 2008 /Rudy Bessard)

Another singularity of the “Flosse system” refers to the mobilization of coercive resources. The privatization of the violence means mixes with indirect coercion based on the political resource of fear. The French Polynesia Intervention Group, sort of territorial police controlled by the presidency, was associated to the Documentation and Studies Service, whose mission consisted in spying opponents (and the president's relations too). The indirect coercion mechanisms dealt with a symbolic violence detectable in the Polynesian political imaginaries. For instance, the “led weight” was a common expression to describe the sociopolitical climate during the “Flosse system” in Tahiti. The resounding disappearance and unsolved cases of the journalist Jean-Pascal Couraud in 1997, and of two political rivals (the Autonomists Boris Léontieff and Lucien Kimitete) in 2002, increased mostly the fear of the chief's powerfulness.

Outside the coercion resources, the “system Flosse” is also based on the control of the municipalities (42 on 48 in 2004) and of the pluralist space, down to the smallest sports federation. The locking of the Medias is defined by a muzzled written press, the creation of his own press agency and television channel (Tahiti Nui TV). Even the stubborn journalists are sometimes taken on by the presidency. As a matter of fact, the system absorbs all forms of contestation and critics. Moreover, the scene of an atypical domination in a democratic regime is completed by the straddling between the party and the local government. The boss of the party is also the chief of the government, on the contrary to the democratic standards.

However, this authoritarian situation, in the continuity of the personal rule practices in the Fifth French Republic, has particularly been possible by the strategic nuclear stake (1965-1996) and by the derogatory law applying in French Polynesia. Besides, the Polynesian president reproduces a governor's attitude, as well as he was influenced by the Gaullists authorities in the way of making politics. But the leader excesses in his quest of political resources accumulation led to the system entropy.

Yet, the 2004-2005 transition did not achieve the Flosse era. A decade of political instability and repetitive political plots - more than ten governments between 2004 and 2013 - had some link with his temporary fall. After a long political work on the ground, even the law sanction could not prevent him from being largely reelected in May 2013. Ironically, the vote that put “Papa Flosse” back to the presidency happened the same day than the United Nations Assembly vote for the re-registration of French Polynesia on the UN list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. This UN vote was the result of the lobbying work of Oscar Temaru towards the insular South Pacific States. Back to « his » presidency, Gaston Flosse tries to re-establish the former system; for instance, by taking back the Medias control through close businessmen to his party. But he does not have any more at his disposal the same resources matrix, especially in the institutional, coercive and financial fields. He restarted the developing relations with China that are concretized by projects in aquaculture and tourism.

Edouard Fritch, Flosse's successor,
on edge after the attacks by the former president, even though he was named by him.
« I don't live off corruption. » he retorted (La Dépêche de Tahiti, 20 December 2014),
after Flosse had the Tahoeraa group vote against a pay rise for president Fritch.
(© 2014 /Serge Massau)

Confronted to many trials, a court decision denies him his mandates, and he had to leave the presidency in September 2014. But that does not mean that his political career is over at 83 years old. Indeed, he has immediately been recruited as special advisor of the French Polynesia Assembly president. Then he was launching an internal crisis in his own party when his successor, Edouard Fritch, former son-in-law and Tahoeraa delegate-president, is working on the relations enhancement with the French State. So Gaston Flosse - through a Assembly resolution voted the 27th of September 2014 by a part of his majority against the will of the Fritch government -, asked the State more than seven billions of Euros as a compensation for the nuclear testing prejudice, and another billion for the occupation of the Fangataufa and Moruroa atolls, where the atomic experimentations occurred. Even if at the same time new president Edouard Fritch is negotiating a financial help from the State to finance the social security. Gaston Flosse is probably preparing the next elections, considering that he would be eligible. The power addiction remains. And the “Flosse system”, whether it is not as splendid as it was during the Chirac's presidency, is not directly linked to the loss of his mandates. The “Old Lion” still holds a political nuisance capacity.

The detour by the special case of the “Flosse system” not only raises the question of the denaturation of democracy in the Fifth Republic, as it also puts into light the ambiguities in the State-Overseas relations. Is the breathlessness of the “Flosse system”, which durably marked the Polynesian politics, allowing new perspectives for French Polynesia, and also for the French policy in the South Pacific territories? The French policy has yet been characterized by the absence of major political initiatives that illustrates the oblivion of the overseas spaces. Nevertheless, the renewed political stakes are irrigated by the flux of geopolitical, technological and environmental transformations.

Rudy Bessard
Political Scientist, Research Fellow
at Montesquieu Center of Political Researches, University of Bordeaux,
and at the laboratory Governance and Insular Development, University of French Polynesia

Aerial view of a part of Rangiroa atoll (Tuamotu's archipelago).
This island could be threatened by global warming. (© 2006 / Rudy Bessard)

Rudy Bessard
Political scientist, Universities of Bordeaux and French Polynesia