Pouvanaa, elected by the people – a restored reputation

The Big Theatre was full to bursting on Wednesday during the first projection of a documentary by Marie-Hélène Villierme, ‘Pouvanaa, elected by the people.’ The public has been able to pay a necessary visit to the past, allowing certain aspects of Polynesia’s history to be unravelled. Leaving with heavy hearts and lumps in the throats, saying that perhaps, surely, without doubt or possibly Polynesia’s destiny would have been very different if Pouvanaa had been there.

Marie-Hélène watched the crowd enter the Big Theatre with a beating heart. She had trouble believing that all these people had come to see her documentary. However she did not dare to rejoice as it is the ‘reaction’ that matters. This is a 90 minute documentary which plunges into the archives of a period which is, for the younger generation, unclear and distant.  The facts of it however were so decisive that they sealed Polynesia’s future, more than many of us could have imagined it. This child from Huahine enlisted in 1918 for the Pacific Battalion, he returned to the nation a year later and decided to settle in Tahiti, with no particular ambition. However it was there that he discovered the real situation of the French Settlements in Oceania, that of colonial administration which turned its back on local particularities. He had, like the majority of the population, the feeling of being foreign on home ground as the political and economic activities escaped him. His battle against the government began then but the difficulties that he encountered from 1942, by struggling against the administration, led him to conviction and exile to distant islands, before being finally acquitted. In 1949, 1951 and 1956, he was elected deputy and meanwhile founded his party, the Democratic Assembly for Tahitian Populations (RDPT). From archives accounts, it is understood to what point Pouvanaa made Tahitians aware of political consciousness. However the obstinacy of his adversaries weakened his government at the time when De Gaulle returned to power. During the 1958 referendum which offered overseas populations the choice between keeping links with France or obtaining independence, he asked voters to vote ‘No.’ The ‘Yes’ won with 64% votes. The governor in place and Pouvanaa’s opponents then sought to eliminate him from the political scene. ‘His presence is harmful to the interests of France,’ said De Gaulle himself, who saw Pouvanaa as a cumbersome adversary for the project that he was brewing: the installation of the CEP. Pouvanaa was therefore the victim of a trap: he was arrested at home on 11th October, accused of having prepared a fire with his partisans in Papeete. He had been framed. He proclaimed his innocence and was condemned to an eight year imprisonment and a fifteen year ban from visiting Polynesia. It was a trial that the historian Jean-Marc Regnault and the magistrate Catherine Vannier would qualify as ‘colonial.’ Exiled to the Paris region, from time to time Pouvanaa was visited by elected Polynesians and notably Jaques-Denis Drollet, whose metua (song) even asked to defend the ‘giving of the status of département to Polynesia… Pouvanaa’s weakness was his nation, in the obtaining of this unique status he saw the solution to finally return home! And then revolutionise it better. After different measures of pardon, he was able to return to Tahiti in November 1968 where he was welcomed like a hero. In 1969, he was amnestied and in 1971, elected senator. Pardoned, amnestied but not exonerated. Although he never gave up demanding the revision of his trial before the tribunal, Pouvanaa confirmed: ‘I feel no hate or bitterness. France is a great nation and that is why justice will be obtained.’

A Cold Awakening

The audience left the room looking haggard and some with tears in their eyes, literally in shock. They had a feeling of having been betrayed by ‘State prerogatives’ and to have discovered the truth in a very delayed manner. So many emotions make it all a little painful. Especially when one questions what could have happened ‘if.’ For the question that everyone is asking is ‘if Pouvanaa had been there, could he have prevented the installation of the CEP? Would the course of our history have been different?’ To give the benefit of the doubt, we imagine another future for Polynesia, which would perhaps have resembled Polynesians themselves more…  ‘This documentary asks many questions,’ confirms a spectator. ‘It is necessary and moving. I hope that our politicians will see it as Pouvanaa sets an example: he always refused to trade off his principals.’ Another reaction: ‘I am 41 years old and I have just discovered Pouvanaa’s story. I came with my ten year old son so that he had the opportunity, at his age, to understand the role that this man played.’ Also: ‘Until today, we only heard bits and pieces about Pouvanaa. This documentary reintroduces a period of change to our history and asks an essential question: is happiness in what we live or what we are? Pouvanaa wanted ‘to’, whilst others wanted ‘to have’. I have chosen.’

A few weeks away from the first round of the presidential elections, President Sarkozy has stated in his ‘message to the Polynesians’ to want archival holdings to be opened which could allow Pouvanaa’s rehabilitation. The timing is impressive.