Tahiti’s ‘wedding of the year’ turns into political row over covid hypocrisy

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Paul Gauguin restaurant wedding
Some of the 300 guests at the celebrity "wedding of the year" that broke covid-19 public health regulations at the Paul Gauguin Restaurant in Tahiti. Image: Tahiti-Infos

SPECIAL REPORT: By Ena Manuireva

Two days after President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Mā’ohi Nui last month, where the French leader urged the local population to get vaccinated against the danger of the new  delta variant of the covid pandemic already on the islands, High Commissioner Domique Sorain and territorial President Édouard Fritch announced a new set of orders aimed at prohibiting unlawful gatherings.

Here is the wording of High Commissioner Sorain on local television on July 30:

“All festive events such as weddings, birthdays and baby showers, along with concerts in cafes, hotels and restaurants are prohibited” – Tahiti Infos

Sorain added a caveat that would allow restaurants and other food courts to operate if the number of guests was less than 500, with six people a table, with no dancing and performances allowed — and with respecting all protective measures already in place.

Any breach would result in a fine of up to NZ$235.

Five days after these announcements — and in the middle of the restrictions imposed to combat the spread of the new delta variant — Vice-President Teari’i Te Moana Alpha celebrated his wedding.

His guest list included nearly all the members of the local government (the ministers of Health and of Culture were not present) for a total number of around 300 guests at Tahiti’s Paul Gauguin Restaurant.

Wedding shown on Facebook
This event was shown on the Facebook social media platform, thanks to the work of well-known local journalist Vaite Urarii Pambrun and was viewed by thousands of internet users.

This triggered a torrent of critical comment — and at times insults — hurled at the members of the government for their blatant hypocrisy.

Journalist Pambrun also became the target of violent diatribes on social media and she was called a “snitch” by the local government’s supporters for reporting what was happening in broad daylight.

It did not help that President Fritch gave another one of his awful speeches at the wedding where he told the audience to simply throw Pambrun in the water if they ever saw her.

The wedding of the vice president: Fritch minimises and says sorry, Sorain remaining firm (Tahiti Infos)

It must be remembered that many people who transgressed against the measures imposed since March last year were fined by the High Commissioner.

Tahiti wedding headline
“L’incompréhension” … says the banner headline on Tahiti-Infos on a story about the celebrity wedding at the Paul Gauguin Restaurant in Tahiti. Image: Tahiti-Infos screenshot

Equal penalty?
One might have expected an equal penalty for all those who took part in the wedding of the year.

In a typical administrative and French fashion, the High Commissioner promised on August 8 that an investigation had been launched into the fiasco.

Somehow the comments flooding social media platforms talked about a cover-up since at least one important representative of the French state was present at the wedding, and the gendarmes (French National Police) who were sent to the restaurant came out without putting an end to the wedding like they had done on other occasions.

It also emerged that some months before, the High Commissioner was asked for  authorisation to allow the wedding to go ahead, but he did not grant it.

It is ironic that the High Commissioner, who did know about the presence of one of his colleagues and the gendarmes at the wedding, did not make the decision to stop it.

To reassert his authority, the High Commissioner was quickly back on television this week  to remind Tahitians once more about the importance of sticking to the preventive measures in place.

But he also called upon the political personalities who were at the wedding to provide an explanation.

Tahitian media responses to celebrity wedding
Responses over the celebrity wedding of the vice-president controversy … President Fritch (left): “excuses” but “sorry”; High Commissioner Sorain: “steadfast”. Image: Tahiti-Infos screenshot

High Commissioner doubles down
He doubled down by saying that he sent the gendarmes to make a statement and that those found guilty of the breach would be fined and dealt with.

Many viewed this intervention as a stark warning to the members of government and other very important political personalities who were involved.

It signalled the beginning of a break in communication between President Fritch and High Commissioner Sorain.

President Fritch also went on television this week to respond, when asked why he waited four days to speak out, that he had wanted to see clearly what the situation was.  He did not want to intervene straight after the wedding.

Clearly he was afraid to add oil to the fire straight after pictures of the wedding were posted on social media.

In his interview, he admitted that the issue was not the number of guests or the preventive measures that, according to him, were followed (although pictures and videos seemed to contradict him). Howdever, it was the live music and the performances that ensued which should never have happened.

Fritch acknowledged that the behaviour of wedding guests was not exemplary and for that he was extremely sorry.

Wedding guests not above law
He also admitted that wedding guests were not above the law, and he understood the public’s disappointment.

Fritch and his government extended an unreserved apology to the public concerning the wedding party’s “lack of judgment”. He said that the investigation was still running and he and his government would take responsibility.

It is difficult to see any kind of sincerity in President Fritch’s comments on television when we know that he lied about the danger of nuclear testing and that he was found guilty and fined for abuse of public funds.

The question remains that neither of the two government leaders have given any reasons for breaking the law — why did the police not put an end to the wedding like they had done for other festive events?

Reaction from deputies Moetai Brotherson and Nicole Sanquer
Deputy Moetai Brotherson of the opposition pro-independence party Tavini Huiraatira also found himself in hot water when people saw that he attended the wedding.

He said that he decided to leave the wedding and talk to Vaite Pambrun when unjust attacks were made against the local journalist by President Fritch.

Moetai has tried to justify his presence at the wedding by saying that he came to see the man and not Vice-President Teari’i Alpha and that he had already accepted the invitation well before the restrictions were in place.

However, in hindsight he admitted that it was wrong to have gone to the wedding and he was ready to pay the fine.

He was the first to apologise for his lack of judgement. He was however perplexed about the gendarmes who were at the wedding and did not stop it.

He assumed that the High Commissioner had given authorisation for the event.

Non-aligned Deputy Nicole Sanquer has been more scathing towards the members of the local government which she was once a member of.

‘Law and sanctions are for others’
Using her own quote: “Law and sanctions are for others”, Sanquer shamed President Fritch who liked to remind the population that it was their duty to behave in an exemplary fashion during this pandemic.

On August 5, people witnessed a real scandal.

At a wedding that gathered hundreds of people with nearly all the members of the government and elected members of the parliament, and in the middle of a concert orchestrated by Fritch and Pape’ete Mayor Michel Buillard, Sanquer said:

“I could not find the words to describe such irresponsibility and lack of common sense. What credibility do they have now?”.

The High Commissioner reminded Tahitians of the rules to follow but what was seen on Facebook showed a lack of respect for the rules.

Why didn’t the High Commissioner put an end to the party like they usually do in the city centre? Are some people exempt from the law and sanctions?

Deputy Sanquer expressed special support for fairground workers, restaurant owners, artists, frontline doctors, nurses, and the whole Ma’ohi Nui population.

‘Carry on fighting the pandemic’
She added: “Let’s carry on fighting against this pandemic by protecting ourselves and above all not rely on the example of those who govern us.”

Tahiti covid health statistics Aug 10 2021
Tahitian renewed covid-19 crisis health statistics at at August 10. Image: Tahitian Health Ministry

From a political stance, the question that should be in people’s mind is the following: are Fritch and Sorain the right people to govern Ma’ohi Nui when one considers himself above the law and the other seems reluctant to apply the law.

Alarming figures about the number of fatalities by covid-19.

The latest figures at the time of writing show 176 deaths (including 10 in 24 hours with 2 at home), 185 people in hospital (26 patients in ICU), and 1075 new cases, making it a total of more than 24,977 cases. There are 3,869 cases still active.

The number of people vaccinated with at least one dose is 103,033 since January 18, 2021.

Editor’s note: Since this article was written a further five people have died in Tahiti.

Ena Manuireva, born in Mangareva (Gambier islands) in Ma’ohi Nui (French Polynesia), is a language revitalisation researcher at Auckland University of Technology and is currently completing his doctorate on the Mangarevan language. He is also a campaigner for nuclear reparations justice from France over the 193 tests staged in Polynesia over three decades.

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