Pouvanaa a Oopa (May 10, 1895 – January 10, 1977) was a French politician and Tahitian (Maohi) nationalist, who led a Tahitian separatist movement against French rule in French Polynesia, before being exiled to France in the late 1950s.
Tahitians and other French Polynesians refer to Pouvanaa as metua, which means "spiritual father." He remains an important symbol for the French Polynesian independence or autonomy movements.
Pouvanaa a Oopa was born in 1895 in Maeva, on the island of Huahine. His mother was of Polynesian descent while his father was a Danish sailor.
He was a veteran of World War I, serving in the French military. Pouvanaa also worked as a "fried-potato vendor" and a carpenter.
During World War II, Pouvanaa criticized people who profited financially from the war, and was placed under arrest in his native Huahine in 1942. Following the end of the war and the liberation of France, Pouvanaa continued to criticize French colonial rule in the islands.
He later founded his own political party, the Democratic Rally of the Tahitian People (RDPT), in October 1947 which advocated Tahitian nationalism and an end to French colonial rule.
Pouvanaa was first elected as a deputy in the National Assembly of France in 1949, becoming the first French Polynesian to serve in the French Chamber of Deputies. He was further re-elected to the French National Assembly in 1952 and 1956, as part of an autonomy program for French Polynesia, which was known as the French Settlements in Oceania at the time.
He became the Vice President of the local government administration of the islands in 1958. Under the slogan of "Tahiti for the Tahitians; Frenchmen into the sea!", Pouvanaa's RDPT swept local elections. He accused the government of France allowing the local economy to deteriorate. As part of the local government, Pouvanaa and his supporters enacted French Polynesia's first income tax, in order to gain more revenue from the local economy, which was dominated by ethnic French and Chinese businesspeople. A strike by business leaders, and a riot in Papeete, in which the French Polynesian Assembly was pelted with stones, led to the law being repealed.
Pouvanaa was a strong advocate of in favor of independence for French Polynesia during the French Polynesian referendum of 1958, which was part of the wider French constitutional referendum. He campaigned in favor of the 'no' vote against the French constitution and in support of independence from France. However, government officials restricted campaigning by the 'no' side, and in some outlying islands voters were unaware that 'no' was an option. The 'no' vote was defeated in the referendum by a margin of 64–36%. However, some local commentators believe 'no' would have won if they had been able to campaign freely. It was also suggested that the 'no' side was defeated in the referendum largely due to continued fallout from the income tax controversy. French Polynesia remained a French territory.
Exile in France
In 1958 prosecutors charged Pouvanaa, a supporter of the Tahitian independence movement, with arson in Papeete. He was accused of leading unrest and trying to burn down the city. Oopa was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison and an additional fifteen years of exile in metropolitan France. However many historians now claim that Pouvanaa's trial was a charade intended to rid the islands of a Tahitian nationalist likely to oppose French nuclear testing in the Tuamotu Archipelago during the 1960s. French President Charles de Gaulle pardoned Pouvanaa in 1968 and he returned to French Polynesia.
Pouvanaa campaigned for and was elected to the French Senate, representing French Polynesia, in 1971. He continued to hold this office until his death in 1977.
Pouvanaa a Oopa died on January 10, 1977, in Tahiti.
Pouvanaa's family requested a new trial in 1988, though their request was denied by the French Justice Department in Paris. The French Justice Department rarely grants new trials, only allowing retrials if new evidence is presented.
In 1982, the Pouvanaa a Oopa Monument was erected in Papeete in front of the Assembly of French Polynesia. The memorial in memory of Pouvanaa became a rallying point for Tahitian during the French nuclear tests of 1995. Nearly one third of the Tahitian adult population gathered at Pouvanaa's memorial in July 1995 to protest against French nuclear detonations in the Tuamotu Archipelago. A street in Papeete, Avenue Pouvanaa A Oopa, is also named in his honor.
In July 2009, the Assembly of French Polynesia unanimously passed a resolution asking the French government for a new trial for Pouvanaa a Oopa.