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Tahiti's scandal-plagued 'Old Lion' bounces back

Photo: AFP

Gaston Flosse, an 81-year-old politician who has been mired in numerous allegations of embezzlement and corruption, is set to return as president of French Polynesia, even while serious legal cases hang over him.


Gaston Flosse, one of France's most prominent and controversial politicians, has staged an impressive comeback in his native French Polynesia. Vaulting over numerous legal woes, the 81-year-old is set to retake power after a five-year absence.

His conservative anti-independence Tahoeraa Huiraatira party won elections in the largely-autonomous territory, best known for the holiday resort of Tahiti, claiming over 45% of all votes on May 6. The new parliament is now expected to pick Flosse as president in two weeks time.

French Polynesia, a group of archipelagos 6,000 kilometres east of Australia, is home to around 277,000 people. A former colony, it is considered an overseas ‘collectivité’ of France since 2003 and enjoys a high degree of autonomy.

It is a position he is familiar with, having been the archipelago’s first president from 1984 to 1987, then ruling unchallenged between 1991 and 2004, and again briefly in 2005 and in 2008.

However, Flosse, who has also been a French senator since 1998, currently risks prison time, stiff fines and ineligibility for public office.

In January of this year, judges said he took 1.2 million euros in bribes for government contracts between 1993 and 2005. In February, in a separate embezzlement case, he was found guilty for his role in a vast fake jobs scam.

His lawyers filed appeals in both cases, in a move that allowed him to participate in the recent elections.

‘White justice’

Besides politics, Flosse has made a career in dodging justice. The pending charges, which if upheld could send him to prison for five years and have him pay more than 200,000 euros in fines, are only the tip of a mountain of allegations dating back to 2001.

Reacting to Monday’s election results, French MP René Dosière, a Socialist, said the results were an embarrassment to France, labelling Flosse “the most corrupt man of the Republic.”

Mired in controversy for purportedly exploiting political power to amass a personal fortune, Fosse was also heavily criticized in the mid-1990s for endorsing French nuclear tests off the coast of the Pacific Ocean paradise.

He was once a close friend of former French president Jacques Chirac, who gave the green light for the controversial atomic tests near the territory.

But analysts said many French Polynesians felt unconcerned by the scandal surrounding the man they often refer to as the “Old Lion”, whose mythical status on the islands largely outweighs his run-ins with a justice system not wholly trusted.

“The courts are considered to be an institution of the ‘Popa’a’, or the white settlers that came from mainland France,” Sémir al Wardi, a political analyst in Tahiti, told FRANCE 24. “So Gaston Flosse’s appearances in court do not have a significant sway on most voters.”

The lingering global recession may also help explain Flosse’s resurgence. As on the mainland, French Polynesia’s economy is struggling to keep above water, a fact that has hurt outgoing president Oscar Temaru.

“Voters remember the times when Flosse was in power as being easier then they are now, without considering how the economy or the relationship with Paris has changed,” al Wardi added.

Temaru’s pro-independence UPLD coalition came in second place with 29.26% support in Monday’s vote.

While voters have chosen to give the aging Flosse a fifth term as French Polynesia’s president, the courts must decide later this year if he gets to keep it.

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