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French Polynesia

Related subjects: Oceania (Australasia)

Background Information

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French Polynesia
  • Polynésie française  (French)
  • Pōrīnetia Farāni  ( Tahitian)
Overseas collectivity flag Coat of arms
  • "Tahiti Nui Māre'are'a" (Tahitian)
  • " Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" (French)
  • "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"
Anthem:  La Marseillaise
Capital Papeetē
17°34′S 149°36′W
Largest city Fa'a'a
Official languages French
Ethnic groups (1988)
  • 66.5% unmixed Polynesians
  • 7.1% mixeda Polynesians
  • 11.9% Europeansb
  • 9.3% Demisc
  • 4.7% East Asiansd
Demonym French Polynesian
Government Dependent territory
 -  President of France François Hollande
 -  President of French Polynesia Gaston Flosse
 -  High Commissioner Jean-Pierre Laflaquière
Overseas collectivity of France
 -  Protectorate 1842 
 -  Overseas territory 1946 
 -  Overseas collectivity 2003 
 -  Total 4,167 km2 ( 173rd)
1,609 sq mi 
 -  Water (%) 12
 -  Jan 2010 estimate 267,000 ( 177th)
 -  Aug 2007 census 259,596 ( 177th)
 -  Density 63/km2 ( 130th)
164/sq mi
GDP (nominal) 2006 estimate
 -  Total US$5.65 billion ( not ranked)
 -  Per capita US$21,999 ( not ranked)
Currency CFP franc ( XPF)
Time zone ( UTC-10, −9:30, -9)
Drives on the right
Calling code +689
ISO 3166 code PF
Internet TLD .pf
a. Light European and/or East Asian.
b. Mostly French.
c. Mixed European and Polynesian descent.
d. Mostly Chinese.

French Polynesia ( / ˈ f r ɛ n p ɒ l ɨ ˈ n ʒ ə /; French: Polynésie française, pronounced:  [pɔlinezi fʁɑ̃sɛz]; Tahitian: Pōrīnetia Farāni) is an overseas country (pays d'outre-mer) of the French Republic. It is made up of several groups of Polynesian islands, the most famous island being Tahiti in the Society Islands group, which is also the most populous island and the seat of the capital of the territory ( Papeetē). Although not an integral part of its territory, Clipperton Island was administered from French Polynesia until 2007.


The French frigate Floréal in November 2002, stationed in Bora Bora lagoon.

The island groups that make up French Polynesia were not officially united until the establishment of the French protectorate in 1889. The first of these islands to be settled by indigenous Polynesians were the Marquesas Islands in AD 300 and the Society Islands in AD 800. The Polynesians were organized in loose chieftainships.

European communication began in 1521 when the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan sighted Pukapuka in the Tuāmotu-Gambier Archipelago. Dutchman Jakob Roggeveen came across Bora Bora in the Society Islands in 1722, and the British explorer Samuel Wallis visited Tahiti in 1767. The French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville visited Tahiti in 1768, while the British explorer James Cook visited in 1769. In 1772 The Spanish Viceroy of Peru Don Manuel de Amat ordered a number of expeditions to Tahiti under the command of Domingo de Bonechea who was the first European to explore all of the main islands beyond Tahiti. A short-lived Spanish settlement was created in 1774. Some maps still bear the name Isla de Amat for Tahiti, which was named after Viceroy Amat in the 18th century. Christian missions began with Spanish priests who stayed in Tahiti for a year. Protestants from the London Missionary Society settled permanently in Polynesia in 1797.

Society Island kingdoms.

King Pōmare II of Tahiti was forced to flee to Mo'orea in 1803; he and his subjects were converted to Protestantism in 1812. French Catholic missionaries arrived on Tahiti in 1834; their expulsion in 1836 caused France to send a gunboat in 1838. In 1842, Tahiti and Tahuata were declared a French protectorate, to allow Catholic missionaries to work undisturbed. The capital of Papeetē was founded in 1843. In 1880, France annexed Tahiti, changing the status from that of a protectorate to that of a colony.

In the 1880s, France claimed the Tuamotu Archipelago, which formerly belonged to the Pōmare Dynasty, without formally annexing it. Having declared a protectorate over Tahuata in 1842, the French regarded the entire Marquesas Islands as French. In 1885, France appointed a governor and established a general council, thus giving it the proper administration for a colony. The islands of Rimatara and Rūrutu unsuccessfully lobbied for British protection in 1888, so in 1889 they were annexed by France. Postage stamps were first issued in the colony in 1892. The first official name for the colony was Établissements de l'Océanie (Settlements in Oceania); in 1903 the general council was changed to an advisory council and the colony's name was changed to Établissements Français de l'Océanie (French Settlements in Oceania).

In 1940, the administration of French Polynesia recognised the Free French Forces and many Polynesians served in World War II. Unknown at the time to French and Polynesians, the Konoe Cabinet in Imperial Japan on 16 September 1940 included French Polynesia among the many territories which were to become Japanese possessions in the post-war world – though in the course of the war in the Pacific the Japanese were not able to launch an actual invasion of the French islands.

In 1946, Polynesians were granted French citizenship and the islands' status was changed to an overseas territory; the islands' name was changed in 1957 to Polynésie Française (French Polynesia). In 1962, France's early nuclear testing ground of Algeria became independent and the Maruroa atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago was selected as the new testing site; tests were conducted underground after 1974. In 1977, French Polynesia was granted partial internal autonomy; in 1984, the autonomy was extended. French Polynesia became a full overseas collectivity of France in 2003.

In September 1995, France stirred up widespread protests by resuming nuclear testing at Fangataufa atoll after a three-year moratorium. The last test was on 27 January 1996. On 29 January 1996, France announced that it would accede to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and no longer test nuclear weapons.


Politics of French Polynesia takes place in a framework of a parliamentary representative democratic French overseas collectivity, whereby the President of French Polynesia is the head of government, and of a multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the Assembly of French Polynesia (the territorial assembly).

Political life in French Polynesia has been marked by great instability since the mid-2000s. On 14 September 2007, the pro-independence leader Oscar Temaru, 63, was elected president of French Polynesia for the 3rd time in 3 years (with 27 of 44 votes cast in the territorial assembly). He replaced former President Gaston Tong Sang, opposed to independence, who lost a no-confidence vote in the Assembly of French Polynesia on 31 August after the longtime former president of French Polynesia, Gaston Flosse, hitherto opposed to independence, sided with his long enemy Oscar Temaru to topple the government of Gaston Tong Sang. Oscar Temaru, however, had no stable majority in the Assembly of French Polynesia, and new territorial elections were held in February 2008 to solve the political crisis.

The Assembly of French Polynesia.

The party of Gaston Tong Sang won the territorial elections, but that did not solve the political crisis: the two minority parties of Oscar Temaru and Gaston Flosse, who together have one more member in the territorial assembly than the political party of Gaston Tong Sang, allied to prevent Gaston Tong Sang from becoming president of French Polynesia. Gaston Flosse was then elected president of French Polynesia by the territorial assembly on 23 February 2008 with the support of the pro-independence party led by Oscar Temaru, while Oscar Temaru was elected speaker of the territorial assembly with the support of the anti-independence party led by Gaston Flosse. Both formed a coalition cabinet. Many observers doubted that the alliance between the anti-independence Gaston Flosse and the pro-independence Oscar Temaru, designed to prevent Gaston Tong Sang from becoming president of French Polynesia, could last very long.

At the French municipal elections held in March 2008, several prominent mayors who are member of the Flosse-Temaru coalition lost their offices in key municipalities of French Polynesia, which was interpreted as a disapproval of the way Gaston Tong Sang, whose party French Polynesian voters had placed first in the territorial elections the month before, had been prevented from becoming president of French Polynesia by the last minute alliance between Flosse and Temaru's parties. Eventually, on 15 April 2008 the government of Gaston Flosse was toppled by a constructive vote of no confidence in the territorial assembly when two members of the Flosse-Temaru coalition left the coalition and sided with Tong Sang's party. Gaston Tong Sang was elected president of French Polynesia as a result of this constructive vote of no confidence, but his majority in the territorial assembly is very narrow. He offered posts in his cabinet to Flosse and Temaru's parties which they both refused. Gaston Tong Sang has called all parties to help end the instability in local politics, a prerequisite to attract foreign investors needed to develop the local economy.

High Commission of the French Republic.

Despite a local assembly and government, French Polynesia is not in a free association with France, like the Cook Islands with New Zealand or the Federated States of Micronesia with the United States. As a French overseas collectivity, the local government has no competence in justice, education, security and defense, directly provided and administered by the Government of France, the Gendarmerie, and French military forces. The highest representative of the State in the territory is the High Commissioner of the Republic in French Polynesia (French: Haut commissaire de la République).

French Polynesia also sends two deputies to the French National Assembly, one representing the Leeward Islands administrative subdivision, the Austral Islands administrative subdivision, the commune (municipality) of Mo'orea-Mai'ao, and the westernmost part of Tahiti (including the capital Papeetē), and the other representing the central and eastern part of Tahiti, the Tuāmotu-Gambier administrative division, and the Marquesas Islands administrative division. French Polynesia also sends one senator to the French Senate.

French Polynesians vote in the French presidential elections and at the 2007 French presidential election, in which the pro-independence leader Oscar Temaru openly called to vote for the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal while the parties opposed to independence generally supported the centre-right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, the turnout in French Polynesia was 69.12% in the first round of the election and 74.67% in the second round. French Polynesians voters placed Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of Ségolène Royal in both rounds of the election (2nd round: Nicolas Sarkozy 51.9%; Ségolène Royal 48.1%).


Between 1946 and 2003, French Polynesia had the status of an overseas territory (French: territoire d'outre-mer, or TOM). In 2003 it became an overseas collectivity (French: collectivité d'outre-mer, or COM). Its statutory law of 27 February 2004 gives it the particular designation of overseas country inside the Republic (French: pays d'outre-mer au sein de la République, or POM), but without legal modification of its status.

Administrative divisions

French Polynesia has five administrative subdivisions (French: subdivisions administratives):

  • Marquesas Islands (French: (les) (Îles) Marquises or officially la subdivision administrative des (Îles) Marquises)
  • Leeward Islands (French: (les) Îles Sous-le-Vent or officially la subdivision administrative des Îles Sous-le-Vent) (the two subdivisions administratives Windward Islands and Leeward Islands are part of the Society Islands)
  • Windward Islands (French: (les) Îles du Vent or officially la subdivision administrative des Îles du Vent) (the two subdivisions administratives Windward Islands and Leeward Islands are part of the Society Islands)
  • Tuāmotu-Gambier (French: (les) (Îles) Tuamotu-Gambier or officially la subdivision administrative des (Îles) Tuamotu-Gambier) (the Tuamotus and the Gambier Islands)
  • Austral Islands (French: (les) (Îles) Australes or officially la subdivision administrative des (Îles) Australes) (including the Bass Islands)


Map of French Polynesia.

The islands of French Polynesia have a total land area of 4,167 square kilometres (1,622 sq. mi) scattered over 2,500,000 square kilometres (965,255 sq. mi) of ocean. There are around 130 islands in French Polynesia. The highest point is Mount Orohena on Tahiti.

It is made up of six groups of islands. The largest and most populated island is Tahiti, in the Society Islands.

The island groups are:

  • Marquesas Islands
  • Society Islands
  • Tuamotu Archipelago
  • Gambier Islands often considered part of the Tuamotu Archipelago
  • Austral Islands
  • Bass Islands often considered part of the Austral Islands

Aside from Tahiti, some other important atolls, islands, and island groups in French Polynesia are: Ahē, Bora Bora, Hiva 'Oa, Huahine, Mai'ao, Maupiti, Meheti'a, Mo'orea, Nuku Hiva, Raiatea, Taha'a, Tetiaroa, Tupua'i, and Tūpai.

Top three largest communes
Commune Island Population
Faaa Tahiti 29,900
Papeete Tahiti 26,300
Mahina Tahiti 14,500


The GDP of French Polynesia in 2006 was 5.65 billion US dollars at market exchange rates, the fifth-largest economy in Oceania after Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and New Caledonia. The GDP per capita was 21,999 US dollars in 2006 (at market exchange rates, not at PPP), lower than in Hawai'i, Australia, New Zealand, and New Caledonia, but higher than in all the independent insular states of Oceania.

French Polynesia has a moderately developed economy, which is dependent on imported goods, tourism, and the financial assistance of mainland France. Tourist facilities are well developed and are available on the major islands. Also, as the noni fruit from these islands is discovered for its medicinal uses, people have been able to find jobs related to this agricultural industry.

The legal tender of French Polynesia is the CFP Franc.

Agriculture: coconuts, vanilla, vegetables, fruits.

Natural resources: timber, fish, cobalt.

In 2008, French Polynesia's imports amounted to 2.2 billion US dollars and exports amounted to 0.2 billion US dollars. The major export of French Polynesia is their famous black Tahitian pearls which accounted for 55% of exports (in value) in 2008.


Tahitian girls, circa 1860–1879.

Total population on 1 January 2010 was 267,000 inhabitants, up from 259,596 at the August 2007 census. At the 2007 census, 68.6% of the population of French Polynesia lived on the island of Tahiti alone. The urban area of Papeetē, the capital city, has 131,695 inhabitants (2007 census).

At the 2007 census, 87.3% of people living in French Polynesia were born in French Polynesia, 9.3% were born in metropolitan France, 1.4% were born in overseas France outside of French Polynesia, and 2.0% were born in foreign countries. At the 1988 census, the last census which asked questions regarding ethnicity, 66.5% of people were ethnically unmixed Polynesians, 7.1% were ethnically mixed Polynesians, 11.9% were Europeans (mostly French), 9.3% were people of mixed French and Polynesian descent, the so-called Demis (literally meaning "Half"), and 4.7% were East Asians (mainly Chinese).

The Europeans, the Demis and the Chinese are essentially concentrated on the island of Tahiti, particularly in the urban area of Papeetē, where their share of the population is thus much greater than in French Polynesia overall. Despite a long history of ethnic mixing, ethnic tensions have been growing in recent years, with politicians using a xenophobic discourse and fanning the flame of nationalism.

Historical population

1907 1911 1921 1926 1931 1936 1941 1946 1951 1956
30,600 31,900 31,600 35,900 40,400 44,000 51,200 58,200 63,300 76,323
1962 1971 1977 1983 1988 1996 2002 2007 2010
84,551 119,168 137,382 166,753 188,814 219,521 245,516 259,596 267,000
Official figures from past censuses.


Cemetery in the Tuāmotu.

French is the only official language of French Polynesia. An organic law of 12 April 1996 states that "French is the official language, Tahitian and other Polynesian languages can be used." At the 2007 census, among the population whose age was 15 and older, 68.5% of people reported that the language they speak the most at home is French, 29.9% reported that the language they speak the most at home is any of the Polynesian languages (four-fifth of which Tahitian), 1.0% reported a Chinese language (half of which Hakka), and 0.6% another language.

At the same census, 94.7% of people whose age was 15 or older reported that they could speak, read and write French, whereas only 2.0% reported that they had no knowledge of French. 74.6% of people whose age was 15 or older reported that they have some knowledge of one of the Polynesian languages, whereas 13.6% reported that they had no knowledge of any of the Polynesian languages.


Christianity is the main religion of the islands: a majority (54%) belong to various Protestant churches and a large minority (30%) are Roman Catholic. Slightly more than 50% of French Polynesia's population belongs to the Maohi Protestant Church, the largest Protestant denomination. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had 21,884 members as of 2012. Jehovah's Witnesses had 2,656 publishers in Tahiti as of 2011.


There are 53 airports in French Polynesia; 46 are paved. The Faaa International Airport is the only international airport in French Polynesia. Each island has its own airport that serves flights to other islands. Air Tahiti is the main airline that flies around the islands.

Notable people

  • Vaitiare Bandera (born 1964), actress
  • Cheyenne Brando (1970–1995), model, daughter of Marlon Brando and Tarita Teriipia
  • Tuki Brando (born 1990), model, son of Cheyenne Brando
  • Jacques Brel (1929–1978), Belgian musician who lived in French Polynesia near the end of his life.
  • Jean Gabilou, singer (born 1944), represented France in the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest.
  • Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), French impressionist painter who spent the last years of his life in French Polynesia.
  • Maréva Georges, model, former Miss Tahiti 1990 and Miss France 1991.
  • Pouvāna'a 'Ō'opa (1895–1977), politician and Tahitian nationalist.
  • Henri Hiro (1944–1991), film director and script writer, poet, ecologist, activist.
  • Ella Koon (born 1979), singer, actor and model.
  • Karina Lombard (born 1969), French-American model
  • Marco Namouro (1889–1968), writer.
  • Fabrice Santoro (born 1972), professional tennis player.
  • Tarita Teriipia (born 1941), actress, third wife of Marlon Brando
  • Marama Vahirua (born 1980), footballer, cousin of Pascal Vahirua.
  • Pascal Vahirua (born 1966), French former international footballer.
  • Célestine Hitiura Vaite (born 1966), writer.


French Polynesia came to the forefront of the world music scene in 1992, with the release of The Tahitian Choir's recordings of unaccompanied vocal Christian music called himene tārava, recorded by French musicologist Pascal Nabet-Meyer. This form of singing is common in French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, and is distinguished by a unique drop in pitch at the end of the phrases, which is a characteristic formed by several different voices; it is also accompanied by steady grunting of staccato, nonsensical syllables.

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