France – The 2017 Presidential Election in the French Pacific Territories

Delivering a speech in French Polynesia during a visit to the French Pacific territories last year, outgoing President François Hollande said: “France is everywhere in the world. And when they say we go to the end of the world, I say: ‘No. We go to the end of France’.” France’s global footprint due to its overseas territories is extensive – les départements et collectivités d’outre-mer, as they are known, give France a presence in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, and the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world. Geographically remote and with relatively small populations, France’s overseas territories are often ignored in presidential elections, but the recent unrest in Guiana has brought them to the fore this year.

The three Pacific territories – New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna – have a combined population of under 600,000, less than 1% of the total French population. Residents of the territories have full French citizenship, including the right to vote in French presidential (as well as European) elections, and each territory elects representatives to the French National Assembly and Senate. In French presidential elections, there is traditionally low turnout in the overseas territories. The French Pacific is no exception; French Polynesia recorded turnouts in 2012 of just 49% in round one and 59% in round two. Low turnout is perhaps to be expected given the geographical distance involved, although the most remote territory, Wallis and Futuna, usually records the highest turnout. Another factor is the deliberate boycotting of presidential elections by pro-independence groups in New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Independence remains a very salient issue in the French Pacific in this year’s presidential election, with a referendum on independence scheduled to be held in New Caledonia in 2018. Anti-independence groups in New Caledonia generally align themselves with the major French conservative party (now The Republicans), while those pro-independence groups that do involve themselves with French politics tend to back the Socialist Party, in the belief that they are more sympathetic to the secessionist cause. While Nicolas Sarkozy – with a notoriously anti-independence stance in regards to New Caledonia – won significant support in the first round conservative primary there, François Fillon still won far more support in New Caledonia during the primaries than in the other French territories, winning 78% of the second-round vote in New Caledonia (Fillon lost in both Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia, in the latter winning just a 5% share in the first round). After the ‘Penelopegate’ scandal which has threatened to sink his candidacy, several key political figures of the right in New Caledonia withdrew their support for Fillon, but others have rallied behind the candidate.

This is important, as the success or failure of French presidential aspirants in the territories often says more about local politics than national politics. The endorsements of local political leaders are often crucial to the outcome – which is watched closely by observers for what it says about the popularity of these local figures, rather than the candidates themselves. For example, in the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia, Hilarion Vendegou – chief, local mayor, and a New Caledonian representative in the French Senate – endorsed Fillon in the primaries who went on to win both rounds in the locality easily.

In French Polynesia, there has been much horse-trading amongst political leaders on who to support. Gaston Flosse – a dominant figure in French Polynesian politics for over 30 years, now barred from holding public office until 2019 due to a conviction for corruption – initially supported Sarkozy, then Fillon, before eventually endorsing Marine Le Pen. Claiming this was on the basis of her support for greater autonomy for French Polynesia, he stressed this was not an endorsement of her party, but rather her as an individual. Eduoard Fritch – current President of French Polynesia, and Flosse’s former son-in-law and protégé – initially supported Alain Juppé, and has now backed Fillon despite voicing criticism of his plans to cut public service spending and vagueness on territorial issues (Fillon has said the cuts will not affect overseas territories).

Meanwhile, former French Polynesian President and the most prominent pro-independence figure in the territory, Oscar Temaru, attempted to stand in the presidential election to raise awareness of the pro-independence cause in French Polynesia. While he did not reach the threshold of endorsements needed to run, he gained the most support from elected officials in both French Polynesia and New Caledonia of any aspiring candidate. After failing to secure enough support to run, he advised his supporters to boycott the election.

Of course, neither of the two highest-polling candidates going into the first round of polling are candidates from the two major political parties, meaning the political landscape – and what this means for the French Pacific – is uncharted territory. Le Pen visited the Pacific in 2013, and has voiced support for greater territorial autonomy and compensation for nuclear testing, as well as promising a greater focus on territorial issues. The National Front’s deputy leader visited the Pacific in December 2016 and promised to respect the provisions for an independence referendum for New Caledonia under the 1998 Noumea Accord. More recently, Le Pen has responded to the protests in Guiana, emphasising her key campaign messages on law and order, security and immigration. While the party has made a concerted effort to attract voters from the territories in this election, they have historically polled far lower in the Pacific territories than in mainland France (although significantly higher in New Caledonia than in either French Polynesia or Wallis and Futuna).

Macron’s understanding of territorial issues has seemed shaky at times; in March, he wrongly referred to Guiana as an “island”. On recent visits to the territories of Réunion and Mayotte he has, however, promised subsidised airfares to increase links between the territories and mainland France, as well as an ambitious economic development plan. His position on New Caledonia’s political future is unclear; as Philippe Gomès, former President of New Caledonia and current representative in the French National Assembly,has said: “We do not really know his DNA.”

Whoever wins the 2017 presidential election will play a key role in determining future political statuses in the French Pacific. They will have to deal with the impending referendum on independence in New Caledonia as well as calls for greater autonomy intensifying in French Polynesia. Thus, the ramifications of the 2017 vote will extend right to the end of the France.

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