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French Polynesia

  • Main languages: Polynesian/Maohi (eight languages), French

    Main religions: Christianity (various)

    Minority groups include Europeans and Chinese. The five archipelagoes each have a distinct Polynesian language. The territory is dominated by the island of Tahiti, where some 70 per cent of the population live, with more than half in the capital, Papeete. The historic Polynesian population is partly assimilated with migrant Europeans; many prominent Polynesians are mixed-race (demis).

    More than 10,000 Europeans moved into French Polynesia in association with nuclear testing and the growth of the government economy in the 1960s and 1970s. Some have now returned to France. In the late nineteenth century there was significant Chinese migration and there is some hostility to the Chinese community; Chinese were not given citizenship until the 1960s.

  • Environment

    French Polynesia is the largest in population, and geographical area, of France’s three territories in the South Pacific. There are five archipelagos, four with high islands of volcanic origin, though the largest group, the Tuamotus, are coral atolls. French Polynesia is prone to cyclones.


    European contact largely began in the late eighteenth century. France established a protectorate in the 1840s and all the present islands of French Polynesia were incorporated into the territory by 1901. Plantations were established in the 1850s in the Society Islands, leading to Chinese and European migration. In other archipelagos, Polynesian society was less affected by modernization until the twentieth century.

    After the Second World War, when there were military bases in Polynesia and Polynesians fought for France, there was a rapid growth of nationalism associated with a prominent local leader, Pouvanaa a Oopa, who formed the first Polynesian political party, the Rassemblement Démocratique des Populations Tahitiennes which sought greater economic, cultural and political freedom. Pouvanaa was elected to the French parliament and in 1958, as Vice-President of the Government Council of French Polynesia, sought secession from France. In the following year 36 per cent of the population, mainly in the Society Islands, voted for secession. Soon afterwards Pouvanaa was arrested, brought before a court on charges that were widely regard as false and jailed. He was later exiled to France, weakening the Maohi nationalist movement.

    In 1960 an international airport was opened on Tahiti, and the tourist industry began to grow. In 1966 France started its nuclear testing programme on Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in the Tuamotus archipelago. Both tourism and nuclear testing increased employment opportunities and incomes and reduced the demand for independence. New nationalist leaders and parties emerged in the 1970s and after 1977 increased autonomy was granted to French Polynesia. At the 1982 election the principal pro-independence party Ia Mana Te Nunaa gained three (out of thirty) seats, but there was no great support for independence. Opposition to nuclear testing grew, with Protestant Church support, but despite strikes and riots it continued until a testing moratorium was introduced by President Francois Mitterrand in 1991. With the election of his conservative successor Jacques Chirac testing then resumed from 1995 to 1996.

    Despite the end of nuclear testing the economy of French Polynesia remains heavily dependent on French aid and public expenditure, despite the significance of the tourist industry, which is highly concentrated in and near Tahiti. The annual French subsidy is of the order of 130 billion Pacific francs (about US$1 billion). Most formal employment is in the public sector, but many people continue to work in agriculture and fishing. Exports (of pearls and vanilla) are of slight importance.


    French Polynesia has a single 57-seat Territorial Assembly, that has largely been dominated by parties that advocate continued ties with France, although there has been always been significant pressure for independence mostly centred in suburban Papeete.

    Oscar Temaru, who became Mayor of Fa’aa, a poor Papeete suburb, founded Tavini Huiraatira (the Polynesian Liberation Front) in 1977, which has long sought independence. Independence was primarily intended to focus on the development of local resources, the establishment of regional ties and the use of the Tahitian (Maohi) language, but many Polynesians perceived this as idealistic rather than pragmatic. Greater autonomy was given to French Polynesia, Tahitian became an official language (with French) but support for the pro-independence parties saw a slow rise from two seats in the local Assembly in 1983, to four in 1991. In 2001 Tavini won 13 of the 41 seats in the Territorial Assembly and began to build coalitions with other pro-independence and pro-autonomy parties opposed to long-serving President Gaston Flosse.

    In 1992 the Territorial Assembly negotiated a ten-year Pacte de Progrès (Progress Pact) to develop other sources of income, to replace the expenditure associated with nuclear testing.

    The resumption of French nuclear testing in Moruroa in mid-1995 resulted in enormous opposition in French Polynesia. Evidence has mounted that nuclear testing has been injurious to the health of Polynesians who have worked for lengthy periods on Moruroa, and there are concerns about the present and future disintegration of the atoll, with significant cracks recognised in 2000. Supporters of independence regarded the French government decision as a ‘colonial decision’ taken without local consultation; there was a resurgence in support for Tavini Huiraatira and considerable violence against French institutions. However, while independence movement has gained support in the Windward islands (Tahiti and Moorea) and the Austral islands, it has limited support in the outer islands, where the prospects for economic development are exceptionally poor, despite its strong presence in Tahiti.

    In the present century there has been some delegation of power to French Polynesia (as in other French dependencies in the Pacific) and traditional supporters of France have fared less well. French Polynesia became an ‘overseas country’ of France rather than an ‘overseas territory’ in 2003. In 2000 President Chirac’s close ally Gaston Flosse was convicted of corruption, but pardoned by the Court of Appeal in Paris.

    Subsequently his Tahoera’a Huiraatira party has twice been defeated in elections for the Assembly. In May 2004, after almost twenty years, Flosse lost power over the Territorial Assembly to a coalition led by independence leader Oscar Temaru.

    Flosse, alongside Lafleur in New Caledonia, was a key pillar of French policy in the region – both had been in power for over two decades. Their defeats were setbacks to the programme outlined by President Chirac when he toured New Caledonia and French Polynesia in July 2003. At the 2004 Pacific Islands Forum, French Polynesia was given observer status, but it was President Temaru and not French ally Gaston Flosse who addressed the assembled leaders of the independent nations of the Pacific. Temaru lobbied for French Polynesia to be re-listed with the UN Special Committee on Decolonization.

    After only four months in office Temaru was ousted by a shift in party allegiances leading to a period of considerable uncertainty, with both Flosse and Temaru claiming the Presidency, protest marches, and the occupation and blockade of public buildings. By-elections in February 2005 eventually restored Temaru to power, though with a narrow majority that was challenged by another no-confidence motion in December 2006.

    Increasingly, most French Polynesians (and New Caledonians) see their future as part of the Pacific region, with increasing regional trade and cultural ties. There is a move to replace the name French Polynesia with Tahiti Nui (Tahiti and her islands) which is now the name of the national airline. Despite Temaru’s victory this does not necessarily mean a movement towards independence. President Temaru has stressed that his victory was a vote to change the government – not a referendum on independence. With a narrow majority in parliament, a public service filled with Flosse appointees and a coalition government (including anti-independence parties), Temaru has stated it will be at least a decade before independence comes, but favours a process like that provided by the Noumea Accord in New Caledonia with greater autonomy leading to an eventual vote on independence. The possible decline in French finance that would follow is of concern to many.

  • Association Moruroa e Tatou (MeT)

    Tel: + 689 430 905
    Email: [email protected]; [email protected]

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