In 2011, I was introduced to French Polynesian politics during a rather unusual cab ride in Papeete, the archipelago’s capital city.
The first time René told me that he is the president of French Polynesia, I didn’t believe him. After all, why would a head of state drive my taxi. But when he repeated his claim for a second time, there was no doubt about the intended meaning of his words. “You’re kidding, right?” I said in disbelief while trying to close the passenger door with the sagging hinges. “Well,” René explained, “I ran as a candidate in the last presidential election and they stole my victory!! I am the rightful president of French Polynesia, and I am fighting the election outcome in the courts in Paris.” Hmm, that may explain the dilapidated condition of his car, an ancient Rover sedan in need of much TLC. As it appears, René is spending all of his Polynesian francs on legal fees.
What followed was an animated explanation of René’s misfortune complete with visual aids in the form of a seemingly endless stream of newspaper articles which René pulled off his Rover’s dash board and out of the driver’s door pockets – and all this while weaving through busy Papeete traffic. “I can’t read French”, I protested as the editorials about René’s stolen election and legal escapades piled up on my lap. “Really, I don’t understand a word I am reading.” If it had not been for the occasional picture of René in a suit and tie, I might as well have been reading reports about UFO sightings. We ended our conversation about his lost election with my promising that I would visit his website the moment I come home.
For any traveler, knowing where you are in the world and what earthly authority is responsible for local traffic safety and water supply, can be helpful BEFORE you cross the street or brush your teeth in the sink. French Polynesia, with its 118 islands (including Tahiti), atolls and 285,000 inhabitants, is located in the Pacific, 17 degr south of the equator. As I entrust my life to a driver with a badge and official looking permit, I feel reassured that French Polynesia belongs to France, a relatively civilized country with many rules and a lovely bureaucracy. Administratively speaking, French Polynesia is a “parliamentary representative democratic French overseas collectivity” that stretches over 2,000 km (1,240 mi) of ocean. France has authority over justice, university education, security, (taxi driver permits, hopefully) and defense, but the local government controls primary and secondary education, health, town planning and the environment.
Much squabbling has occurred in recent years over French Polynesia’s looming independence from France and the membership of the territorial assembly seems to be bitterly divided on the issue. As if political fights over independence from France were not enough, the Marquesas Islands, which are also part of French Polynesia, feel neglected by the territorial assembly in Papeete and want independence from French Polynesia. Why anybody craves to be president of such a political mess is a mystery to me.
As René winds down our tour of Tahitian highlights, he wants to make one more stop: Venus Point north of Papeete where Captain Cook arrived with his crew in April 1769. According to the astronomers of Cook’s time, it was important for the calculation of heavenly distances to observe the transit of Venus in the South Pacific. When René and I visit Venus Point, the place is so crowded that René is having trouble finding a parking spot in the busy lot. Cars, busses, tourists, vendors – all squeeze past each other with mere inches to spare. “Let’s park here,” he says while turning off the Rover’s engine and opening the driver’s door in the middle of the mayhem. “René, you can’t be serious”, I protest, “we are blocking all the traffic!” René looks at me with indignation: “Didn’t I tell you: I am the president, I can do as I please!” By now I have just about enough with this president business. “Look, René, there is an empty parking spot right over there”, I say while pointing towards the corner of the lot. “It is even in the shade!” For a moment René looks at the spot but remains silent. A few seconds pass before he places his right hand on my left shoulder, turns towards me and says: “Rhyan, you don’t understand. I can’t park there. I have no reverse gear!”
I did visit René’s website when I got home and tried to decipher his posts, but it was useless. French has never been my forte. As far as I am concerned, René could still be fighting for his rightful place as president of the parliamentary representative democratic French overseas collectivity of French Polynesia before the courts in Paris, because I have heard: the wheels of justice turn slowly in France.