French Polynesia

views updated Jun 08 2018


Territory of French Polynesia

Territoire de la Polynésie Française



An overseas territory of France, French Polynesia's 118 islands and atolls are grouped into 5 archipelagos (group of islands) scattered across some 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) in the South Pacific Ocean midway between South America and Australia. The islands have a total land area of 4,167 square kilometers (1,609 square miles), slightly less than one-third the size of Connecticut. The 5 archipelagos include the Society Islands (which include Tahiti and Bora-Bora); the Tuamotu Archipelago; the Gambier Archipelago; the Marquesas Islands; and the Austral Islands. Together they have 2,525 kilometers (1,569 miles) of coastline. Only 65 of the islands are inhabited, and the overwhelming majority of French Polynesians live along the coastlines. The most inhabited island by far, with about 70 percent of the total population, is Tahiti, which also accounts for a quarter of the islands' total land area. Half of Tahiti's population lives in its major urban center, the capital city of Papeete (population, including surroundings, 69,000, 1996 est.). Tahiti is also the largest island, with a land mass equal to 1,041 square kilometers (402 square miles).

The islands represent a wide variety of topographies (land surfaces), from the plunging waterfalls and extinct volcanoes of Tahiti or Moorea to the low-lying, white-sand lagoon coral-reef atolls of the Tuamotu and Gam-bier groups. One of French Polynesia's most serious long-term problems is the threat presented by global warming and the rising of the world's water level, estimated by the United Nations Environment Program in 1993 to rise by more than 25 inches by 2100. If this proves correct, entire archipelagoes like the Tuamotus may eventually disappear. In the meantime, pressure from the ocean is eroding the available cultivatable land and contaminating the groundwater.


French Polynesia's population was estimated in 2000 at 249,110, with an annual growth rate of 1.78 percent. Comprehensive public health care has secured a long life expectancy74.79 years at birthand a low infant mortality rate9.3 per 1,000 live births. The annual rate of immigration 3.14 per 1,000 of populationis accounted for mostly by French government officials and retirees. Those under 15 years of age make up 30 percent of the population, with 65 percent between 15 and 64 years of age. The remaining 5 percent are over 65 years of age.

The majority of the population (78 percent) is of Eastern Polynesian descent. They are closely related to the New Zealand Maoris, but quite distinct from the closer Western Polynesian Samoans and Tongans. Another 12 percent are of Chinese descent, and 10 percent French, of whom 6 percent are local French and 4 percent from France itself. These figures, however, conceal a considerable degree of racial mixture. Europeans, the majority of whom are French, are concentrated in Papeete. The Chinese, descendants of laborers imported in the 1860s to work Tahiti's short-lived cotton plantations, are scattered throughout the islands and run much of the territory's retail trade. French Polynesians are 54 percent Protestant, 30 percent Roman Catholic, with 16 percent belonging to other religions. The official languages are French and Tahitian.


Until the 1960s, the French Polynesian economy was largely based on subsistence agriculture (raising enough to survive), but in 1962 France began nuclear testing in the islands. This attracted some 30,000 settlers to work in the Centre d'Expérimentations du Pacifique (CEP), a facility that changed the islands' economy forever. By 2000, only 1 in 8 French Polynesians was involved in agriculture. The rest were wage and salary earners in the territory's extensive service sector and various industries. The territory has the highest GDP per capita ($10,800, 1997 est.) in the South Pacific region.

Such progress can be credited to 2 factors: the strength of French Polynesia's tourist potential and continuing economic support from France. Both of these assets look secure for the immediate future. Tourism continues to climb, and new developments, such as the expansion of cruise ship facilities and the opening of isolated islands, have enhanced the industry's infrastructure and ensured its ongoing growth. French subsidization shows no signs of stopping; the French economy is one of the healthiest and fastest-growing in Europe, and both of its main political parties are committed to continued union.

Nevertheless, French Polynesia's overwhelming dependence on a single overseas patron leaves it highly vulnerable in the long term. France's long-range goal is for a more self-sustaining economy for the territory, and within the islands the independence movement is vocal. In the 1996 elections the Independent Front for the Liberation of Polynesia gained 10 of the Territorial Assembly's 41 seats. If this party should ever win a majority, it is highly likely to push for full independence. How the islands would adapt to such a change is unclear, but for it to achieve complete economic self-sufficiency, radical economic reorganization would be required.

A narrow economic base also makes the islands vulnerable. While tourism receipts continue to climb, and French Polynesia enjoys well-established "brand recognition" as a vacation destination, tropical storms are a recurring threat, and competition from other international beach resorts is increasingly sharp. Other industries are being developed, such as cultured pearls (already an important export earner) and coconut products (especially palm oil), mother-of-pearl, vanilla, handicrafts, and fish. But these too are niche industries, susceptible to shifting world prices, and may not be strong enough to be the basis of real diversification.


France began to take over the French Polynesian islands in the late 18th century, and formed them into the group as it exists today in 1903. In 1958, the islands were granted overseas territory status, acquiring further control over their internal government in 1975 and 1984. The territory enjoys considerable latitude over its domestic administration, with its 41-member Territorial Assembly responsible for public works, sports, health, social services, primary education, and the election of the president. However, the military, justice system, and monetary policy are directed by France, and the French constitution remains the supreme law. The high commissioner is France's chief representative in the islands and retains considerable control, with the power to dissolve the Territorial Assembly and take personal control of the budget (as was done in 1992). There is consequently a vibrant independence movement, provoked especially by France's resumption of nuclear testing in the territory in 1995. Protests against the testing led to extensive rioting in Papeete, which caused France to tighten its control.

French Polynesia is essential to France's perception of itself as a world power, even though such aspirations cost France around $300 million a year. The transfer of payments from France to the islands reached a high of 27.5 percent of French Polynesian GDP in 1997 and was estimated to be around 20.6 percent in 2000. These subsidies constitute the territory's primary source of income and are critical to its economic survival. The focus of the subsidies, beyond the maintenance of French facilities and personnel in the territory, is especially for projects designed to build a more self-sustaining economy. While full self-sufficiency is recognized as unfeasible except as a very long-term goaland for which no specific timetable has so far been setthe immediate target is to slowly increase the islands' domestic contribution to national production. This has risen on average around 5 percent per year from 1989 to 1999, increasing the domestic share of production to 43.7 percent in 1999. The plan is to raise it to 60 percent by 2003.

In 1993, in return for the 5-year, US$118 million Pacte de Progrés subsidy program, France demanded the institution of an income tax in order to make the territory more self-supporting. A 3 percent tax on earnings over $1,600 was introduced. The government, however, continues to rely heavily on indirect taxes , which make up around half of the territory's tax revenues. Levies and excises on imported goods and licensing fees are thus among the highest in the Pacific islands.


French Polynesia's infrastructure is in good condition. It undergoes ongoing improvement as a result of French development programs, including tax incentives for businesses who invest in infrastructure. The islands have 792 kilometers (492 miles) of roads, all of them paved. There are 30 paved-runway airports, with 15 more unpaved airstrips, and an international airport at Faa'a outside Papeete. The 4 seaports are Mataura, Papeete,

CountryTelephones aTelephones, Mobile/Cellular aRadio Stations bRadios aTV Stations aTelevisions aInternet Service Providers cInternet Users c
French Polynesia52,0005,427AM 2; FM 14; shortwave 2128,000740,00025,000
United States194 M69.209 M (1998)AM 4,762; FM 5,542; shortwave 18575 M1,500219 M7,800148 M
Philippines1.9 M1.959 M (1998)AM 366; FM 290; shortwave 3 (1999)11.5 M313.7 M33500,000
Solomon Islands8,000658AM 3; FM 0; shortwave 057,00003,00013,000
aData is for 1997 unless otherwise noted.
bData is for 1998 unless otherwise noted.
cData is for 2000 unless otherwise noted.
SOURCE: CIA World Factbook 2001 [Online].

Rikitea, and Uturoa. Most of the islands' fuel needs (60 percent in 1998) are supplied by imported fossil fuels. The remaining 40 percent is provided by hydroelectric power stations. A comprehensive and reliable telephone network also exists, with 32,000 main lines and 4,000 cellular lines in use in 1995.


With its large tourism industry and public sector , the economy of French Polynesia is heavily service-oriented, with services accounting for 78 percent of GDP (1997). Industry, especially pearl cultivation, is also important, making up 18 percent of GDP. Workforce figures reflect this division, with around 40 percent working for the government, 40 percent in services, and 10 percent each in industry and in agriculture.


Farming was once the primary means of survival for most French Polynesians. The development of the French nuclear program in the 1960s lured thousands of workers away from farming, however, and the sector nearly collapsed. By 1965, exports of coffee and vanilla had ended, and coconut production had dropped by 40 percent. In 1997, agriculture made up only 4 percent of GDP and employed 11 percent of the population. In that year, 80 percent of the islands' food had to be imported. The islands have fairly good agricultural resources, however, with 6 percent of available land under crops, 1 percent arable, and a further 5 percent used for pasturage. Local production supplies about half of the islands' vegetables and three-quarters of its fruit. Other products include vanilla and coffee, especially on Tahiti; poultry, beef and dairy products, especially in the Marquesas; and coconuts in the outer islands. Aquaculture is also being developed, with cultivation of shrimp, prawns, live bait, and green mussels.


After tourism, French Polynesia's primary money-earning industry and export product is cultured pearls. Founded in 1963, the industry has shown buoyant growth. In 1990, pearl exports brought the islands $38 million, a figure that had risen to $184.9 million by 2000. Although production has steadily increased from 599 kilograms (1,318 pounds) in 1990 to 7,116 kilograms (15,655 pounds) in 2000, the price per kilogram has been dropping, from US$27.67 in 1997 to $20.84 in 1999. The fall can be blamed on the large quantities of pearls being harvested, which has depressed the price, and to the weakness of the Japanese market, the largest consumer of Tahitian pearls. Producers have tried to address these trends through brand differentiation, by promoting the uniqueness of Tahitian pearls, and by turning their attention to the U.S. market. But the failure of producers in the territory to form an effective marketing cartel, and pressure from other Pacific producers (such as the Cook Islands), have slowed the impact of these efforts.

Other manufactured goods include beer, sandalwood oil, sandals, and handicrafts. Food processing is also important, especially the refining of dried coconut flesh (or copra) into oil for use in vegetable oil, margarine, candles, soap, and cosmetics. French Polynesia's extensive waters also show signs of rich deposits of nickel, cobalt, manganese, and copper. Though plans exist for their extraction, mining will prove expensive.



French Polynesia's tourist appeal is legendary. Even before the paintings of French artist Paul Gauguin gave form to the islands' paradise-like mystique, the islands held a special place in the Western imagination. Tourism proper, however, is relatively recent, largely a consequence of the opening of Tahiti's Faa'a Airport in 1961. Tourist numbers are still only a tiny fraction of those of Hawaii, which gets more visitors in 10 days than French Polynesia gets in an entire year. Still, tourist arrivals have continued to increase, bolstered by new hotel construction and renovation in the mid-1990s, which increased the number of hotel beds by 29 percent between 1990 and 2000. From 139,705 arrivals in 1989, numbers have climbed to 210,800 in 1999, an increase of more than 50 percent (with a 16.8 percent rise from 1997 to 1999 alone). Arrivals are estimated at 240,000 for 2000. Growth has been particularly brisk in terms of North American visitors, with an increase of 48.9 percent from 1997 to 1999. Some 85 percent of these are from the United States. There has also been an increase in cruise-ship traffic, whose generally older and more affluent tourists are especially valuable sources of revenue. Other important markets are Europe (40.1 percent of visitors in 2000, with two-thirds of these from France) and Asia (16.8 percent, with about two-fifths of these from Japan and two-fifths from Australia and New Zealand).

In 1997, tourism generated US$340.2 million in foreign exchange, and accounted for 4,000 jobs and 9.5 percent of GDP. In 2000, receipts of $396.2 million were expected, and a total GDP share of 10.1 percent. The tourism industry is dominated by multinational corporations , as most facilities are foreign-owned and manageda situation that has tended to cause unease among the indigenous Polynesians. Some 80 percent of tourist spending, however, is for goods imported to the islands, and so brings little real gain to the territory's economy. In the long term, though, the hope is that tourist revenue will replace transfer payments from France.


French Polynesia is served by 4 main banks: the Banque Socredo, Banque de Tahiti, Banque de Polynésie, and Australia's Westpac Bank. Offices are only on the main islands of Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea.


Retail services vary widely. Papeete, with its long-established French presence, high standards of living, and extensive tourist trade, is a cosmopolitan city of expensive hotels, restaurants, cafés, cinemas, bars, and nightclubs. Papeete features a range of shops and markets selling jewelry, designer clothes, souvenir handicrafts,

Trade (expressed in billions of US$): French Polynesia
SOURCE: International Monetary Fund. International Financial Statistics Yearbook 1999.

books, and art. This is also true to a lesser extent for the other major islands, Moorea and Bora-Bora. On remoter and more sparsely populated islands, where agriculture may still be the main form of livelihood, retailing becomes much simpler, with local food markets and general stores predominating.


French Polynesia's narrow economic base leaves it dependent on imports for many of its basic goods, and its trade deficit has traditionally been a heavy one. In 1996, the country imported $860 million in goods while exporting only $212 million. The consumer culture that French subsidies have tended to encourage has given the islands one of the largest import-export imbalances in the world. In 2000 imports exceeded exports by a factor of around 5 and accounted for 19.3 percent of GDP, but the gap has been slowly closing. In 1991 the territory's imports had been worth nearly 40 times their exports. The largest supplier of goods to the islands is France, which provided 44.7 percent of the islands' imports (1994); a further 13.9 percent comes from the United States. Exports go to the United States (11 percent, 1994) and France (6 percent). Imports include food, fuel, building materials, consumer goods and automobiles; exports include copra, cultured pearls, vanilla, and perfume.


The currency of French Polynesia is the Pacific Financial Community franc, known in French as the Comptoirs Français du Pacifique franc (CFPF). The CFPF is pegged at a fixed rate to the French franc (18.18 CFPFs = 1 French franc), and, through it, to the euro. Initiated in 1945, the CFPF is also used by France's 2 other Pacific possessions, New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna. In 1967, responsibility for issuing and circulating this currency was transferred from the Banque d'Indochine to the French government. Exchange rates have affected the tourism sector most; prices have generally been high in the islands, and during periods in which currencies

Exchange rates: French Polynesia
Comptoirs Français du Pacifique francs per US$1
Jan 2001127.11
Note: Pegged at the rate of 119.25 CFPF to the euro.
SOURCE: CIA World Factbook 2001 [ONLINE].

such as the U.S. dollar have weakened, so has tourism. The reverse is true as well, with tourism increasing as foreign currencies grew stronger against the CFPF.


In French Polynesia, where unemployment and underemployment are growing problems, the inequalities in wealth are sharp. At one end of the scale is the large ring of slums around Papeete, home to 20,000 dispossessed Polynesians; at the other end are the luxury holiday homes of French Polynesia's seasonal migrants, like actor Marlon Brando, owner of the island of Tetiaroa, just north of Tahiti. The 2,200 expatriate French administrators and advisors, who make up around 4 percent of the islands' population, earn 84 percent more than their metropolitan French counterparts, and are the country's economic elite. Such disparities are made worse by the division of haves and have-nots along racial lines, with French at the top, mixed races in business and minor government posts in the middle, and the indigenous Polynesians at the bottom. The result has been serious social tensions, which have also put a strain on the traditionally relaxed and egalitarian tenor of indigenous life. The public education system has not helped, although it has created a 98 percent literacy rate. With the curriculum entirely French, the indigenous failure rate is high, ranging

GDP per Capita (US$)
French PolynesiaN/A10,800N/AN/AN/A
United States28,60030,20031,50033,90036,200
Solomon Islands3,0003,0002,6002,6502,000
Note: Data are estimates.
SOURCE: Handbook of the Nations 17th,18th,19th and 20th editions for 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999 data; CIA World Factbook 2001 [Online] for 2000 data.

from 40 to 60 percent. This, combined with unemployment, is threatening to produce a Polynesian underclass.


The massive influx of French personnel that accompanied the creation of the Centre d'Expérimentations du Pacifique (CEP) in the early 1960s radically altered the basis of the islands' economy. The nature of their labor conditions changed the economy as well, shifting the workforce away from fishing and farming and into services and industry. This set in motion a migratory drift toward Papeete that still continues. Whereas in 1962 46 percent of French Polynesians were employed in agriculture and fishing, in 1996 only 11 percent were so occupied. The trend has been supported by France's development subsidies, an aim of which has been job creation. From 1997 to 2000, the numbers of those in wage and salary employment increased by 4.2 percent per year, against a 1.6 percent annual increase in the general population over the same period. As a result, there were 20 percent more wage and salary earners in 2000 than there had been in 1995. The gains have been in industry and services, which employ 19 percent and 68 percent of the workforce, respectively. The single largest employer is the government, which accounts for around 40 percent of the workforce. The workforce was most recently estimated at 118,744 in 1988, and unemployment was estimated at 15 percent in 1992.


c. 300. Polynesians reach the Marquesas Islands.

1521. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan sights Pukapuka in the Tuamotus.

1595. Spanish explorer Mendaña lands on the Marquesas Islands.

1767. British navigator Captain Samuel Wallis discovers Tahiti for Europe.

1768. French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville visits Tahiti and claims it for France.

1797. Protestant missionaries arrive on Tahiti.

1842. French protectorate declared over Tahiti and the Marquesas.

1880. Protectorate becomes a colony.

1903. Islands organized into a single colony.

1945. French Polynesians become French citizens.

1958. French Polynesia becomes a French overseas territory.

1962. The French establish the nuclear test program Centre d'Expérimentations du Pacifique (CEP).

1966. French begin nuclear testing on Mururoa.

1975. Worldwide opposition forces French to move nuclear testing underground on Fangataufa.

1984. Partial local autonomy granted.

1995. French president Jacques Chirac resumes nuclear tests after their suspension by President François Mitterand in 1992.


After the end of French nuclear testing in 1996 and the subsequent winding down of the French military presence, the role of French subsidies in the economy has decreased. French Polynesia has been encouraged, with the help of considerable French assistance, to develop alternative sources of income. The territory has had some considerable success in doing so, and economic indicators suggest a positive forecast for French Polynesia. After sluggish growth in the mid-1990s, the economy has climbed from 0.3 percent annual growth in 1996 to 4.0 percent in 2000, while keeping inflation at around 1 percent. But French aid is a mixed blessing. If French support falters, or if not enough is done to address the condition of indigenous and economically excluded Polynesians, this progress could be quickly undermined. In the longer term, global warming and rising sea levels are expected to have an adverse effect.


French Polynesia has no territories or colonies.


Stanley, David. Tahiti-Polynesia Handbook (3rd ed.). Chico, California: Moon Publications, Inc., 1996.

"An Update on French Polynesia." Honolulu: Bank of Hawaii, August 2000. <>. Accessed March 2001.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook 2000. <>. Accessed June 2001.

Alexander Schubert




Comptoirs Français du Pacifique franc (CFPF), also known as the Pacific Financial Community franc or Pacific French franc. One CFPF has 100 centimes. There are notes of CFPF500, 1,000, 5,000, and 10,000, and coins of CFPF1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100.


Cultured pearls, coconut products, mother-of-pearl, vanilla, shark meat.


Coconuts, fuels, foodstuffs, equipment.


US$2.6 billion (1997 est.).


Exports: US$212 million (1996 est.). Imports: US$860 million (1996 est.).

French Polynesia

views updated Jun 08 2018

French Polynesia

Culture Name

French Polynesian


Identification. The Territory of French Polynesia consists of five archipelagoes (Society Islands, Marquesas Islands, Tuamotu Islands, Austral Islands, and Gambier Islands) under French administration. While each island group displays a variant of the Polynesian cultural tradition and all are united by over a century of colonial administration, residents maintain cultural identities specific to the home archipelago and home island. These identities are beginning to blend into a general national identity as a result of modern transportation, education, and communication networks.

Location and Geography. French Polynesia includes 121 islands scattered across more than 1,930,500 square miles (five million square kilometers) in the southern Pacific Ocean between Australia and South America. The island groups were formed by undersea volcanoes and include steep volcanic peaks, high islands with fringing coral reefs and large lagoons, and coral atolls surrounding submerged volcanoes. The capital city, Papeete, is on the island of Tahiti, the largest of these islands and the first to experience European conquest.

Demography. The population as of July 2000 is 249,110 on the inhabited islands. Nearly 80 percent of the residents are of Polynesian or mixed Polynesian ethnicity, approximately 12 percent are of European ancestry and 8 percent are of Chinese decent. The population is concentrated in the urban and suburban areas of northern Tahiti, which has nearly 150,000 residents. Only two other islands, Moorea and Raiatea, have populations above ten thousand and many islands have populations below one thousand.

Linguistic Affiliation. A majority of the residents speak both French and Tahitian, the dominant Polynesian language. On the more isolated islands, older residents continue to speak a local Polynesian language; and in the isolated Austral Islands, languages differ from island to island. These languages have become more homogeneous, and Tahitian is beginning to replace local languages. Older Chinese residents speak the Hakka dialect, but younger generations speak French and often Tahitian.

Symbolism. The Territory flies both the French flag and its own flag which shows a red outrigger canoe on a yellow background over a blue sea. The canoe symbolizes the Polynesian seafaring tradition. Other cultural symbols relate to the fertility of the land (the breadfruit), the beauty of the islands (the tiare gardenia blossom and the black pearl), and the indigenous culture (the tiki figure).

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The five archipelagoès were joined into a new national entity by the gradual process of French conquest and annexation, beginning with Tahiti in 1843 and ending with the annexation of the Austral group in 1900. French administration and the centralization of authority, jobs, transportation, and services in Papeete contributed to the development of a national identity.

National Identity. French Polynesian identity is more Polynesian than French, but many residents are proud of their relationship to French culture and feel a kinship with French-speaking cultures throughout the world. Residents who favor independence from France advocate a return to a more traditional Polynesian culture.

Ethnic Relations. Tensions between the majority Polynesian ethnic group and the minority European and Chinese communities are due to economic inequalities between those groups and persistent cultural differences. Violence against members of ethnic minorities is rare, and systematic discrimination against the members of any ethnic group is not evident. There has been a great deal of intermarriage between ethnic groups, and European and Chinese families tend to assimilate into the majority culture.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the use of Space

The only urban center is Papeete and the surrounding communes at the northern end of Tahiti. These are densely developed areas that include a large commercial and government center, military and port facilities, and a wide range of residential housing types. The dominant style of domestic and commercial architecture is International Modern with concrete walls with metal roofs and decorative wood or masonry. Many homes, while built of imported materials, retain traditional spatial organization with a single large sleeping room and an outdoor kitchen. The architecture of public buildings often reflects one of the two regional architectural traditions: Polynesian-style construction from plant materials or colonial construction.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. In rural areas, people provide much of their own food through fishing, animal husbandry, and gardening of indigenous staple foods such as taro, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, and manioc. These local foods are supplemented with imported goods such as rice, canned goods, and fresh bread. In most rural households, only one meal is cooked each day (either lunch or supper) and leftovers are eaten at the other meals. In larger villages and urban areas, Chinese food is available at the local Chinese-owned general store, and in small restaurants. Islands with hotels have restaurants that serve local Polynesian seafood and French-inspired cuisine.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. On Saturday, Polynesian families prepare an earth oven with traditional foods (fish, pork, taro, breadfruit, sweet potato) to be eaten at large family gatherings on Sunday. Traditional Polynesian food also is served at wedding feasts.

Basic Economy. The economy is heavily dependent on French social programs and military spending. The most important commodity is black pearls, and with the exception of flowers, agricultural exports are insignificant. There is an active internal agricultural trade in which fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish are shipped to market in the urban center from the other islands. Fishing provides some export income, but large-scale commercial fishing is dominated by foreign fleets. Tourism is relatively under-developed, but the jobs and income from tourism are significant on islands that have resorts.

Land Tenure and Property. The contemporary system of land ownership and tenure resulted from French efforts to introduce a system of individual land ownership. Land is inherited equally by all the descendants of a landowner and is often held in common by large groups of related people. Coowners who reside on the family land work out the details of use rights among themselves; these rights are inherited by one's children. Communal land holding is the source of many disputes as heirs petition to divide land into individual holdings or attempt to sell land with competing ownership claims. However, communal ownership has slowed the transfer of land from Polynesian families to recent immigrants. There are few landless Polynesians.

Commercial Activities. A very active import business is dominated by Chinese-Tahitian and French-Tahitian family-owned businesses. Multinational companies are involved in the airline, hotel, construction, and energy sectors, while the importation of building materials, consumer goods, and transport is controlled by local businesses. Locally produced goods include vanilla beans, coconut-oilbased soaps and cosmetics, fruit juice, milk and yogurt, clothing, flowers, and handicrafts.

Major Industries. Within the urban core of Papeete, there are several industrial zones. The port area of Fare includes a number of boat-building and ship-repair businesses, as well as major construction material suppliers. There are only a few factories in French Polynesia: a beer and soft drink bottling enterprise and a few small textile printing studios in Papeete, a fruit juice bottling factory on the neighboring island of Moorea, for example. Other major industrial activities include management of landfills, hydroelectric power, and water purification, all of which are government enterprises. Tourism is also an important industry in the Territory (188,933 tourists in 1998).

Trade. Imports of food and other consumer goods including automobiles, appliances, and building materials are enormous by comparison to exports of locally produced commodities. Trade is also entirely by containers shipped by sea into the large port complex of Papeete. Exports of local goods such as black pearls, coconut products, handicrafts, fresh fruit, and flowers are often transported by air. Most trade occurs within the Pacific basin with major trading partners in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Hawaii, and California. A secondary trade market with the European Union is also important but involves luxury goods such as wine, cheese, automobiles, and clothing.

Division of Labor. In general, Polynesian men dominate in skilled and unskilled physical labor (agriculture, construction, fishing, transportation). The retail and commercial sectors are controlled by Chinese and European-Polynesian families. The government sector is the largest source of jobs, with higher-status jobs typically held by European-Polynesian or Polynesian-Chinese residents with university degrees and lower-status jobs held by Polynesians (clerical work by women, public works jobs by men). Political positions and appointments go almost exclusively to Polynesian men.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. The class structure closely mimics that of metropolitan France: small upper class, large middle and lower-middle classes, and a small number of poor people. The upper class includes wealthy Polynesian-European families, Chinese merchant families, and foreign residents. The middle class includes members of all ethnic groups. These families typically own their own homes and have at least one wage earner in the household.

The Polynesian hierarchy of ranked titles and chieftainship has disappeared, but Polynesians continue to keep detailed genealogical records and the descendants of chiefly families are aware of their history. The descendants of the Tahitian monarchy are socially prominent.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Class structure is most evident in the display of imported goods such as automobiles and clothing. There is residential segregation of social classes in the urban areas of Tahiti, with oceanfront and ridgetops dominated by the upper classes, the flat littoral plain by middle-class households, and the interior valleys by lower-class households. On the outer islands, house style and size also mark social stratification, while location is less indicative of class.

political Life

Government. The country's official status is an overseas territory of France, with internal autonomy since 1984. The territory manages many of its own affairs while remaining a member of the French republic. The French state controls defense and law and order, foreign affairs, nationality and immigration, justice, higher education, and research, communications, and the currency. Residents vote in national elections and elect representatives to the national government in Paris. The country is responsible for territorial administration, exploration and development rights in certain maritime areas, primary and secondary education, taxation, prices, and foreign trade.

The territory's political institutions are the government of French Polynesia, the Assembly of French Polynesia, and the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (CES). The president and the head of the territorial administration are elected by the Polynesian Assembly from among the forty-one territorial council members. The territorial council members, representing the five archipelagoès are elected by direct universal suffrage every five years. The important units of community government are the commune (municipality) and subcommunes (districts). Each island has a mayor and an elected municipal council. France is represented by a high commissioner. The CES is composed of thirty people representing the professions, the trade unions, and other economic, cultural, and social institutions.

Leadership and Political Officials. Public officials control the resources that flow from the government to local communities. Government agencies, social services, employment, and salaries are under the control of municipal, territorial, and state officials. Political patronage is the dominant feature of regional politics, and residents develop personal ties to officials and manipulate those relationships to gain access to political power.

Military Activity. France tested nuclear weapons at Mururoa Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago between 1966 and 1996. In August 1999, France maintained a force of 2,300 military personnel and a police force of six hundred.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

In the early 1960s, an accelerated plan for regional development was introduced that involved the creation of a nuclear testing installation in the Tuamotu Islands and the introduction of a colonial welfare state. Funding for regional development and social programs comes primarily from French taxpayers. Aid, subsidies, and loans from France have created many salaried government jobs for islanders. French Polynesians have a fairly high standard of living that is maintained through the money they receive from French entitlement programs, including the elderly pension/retirement system and the family allocation system. Islanders receive free health care and primary education.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Among the most important voluntary organizations and associations are agricultural associations, church-related groups, craft associations, dance groups, and soccer, canoe, and other sports-related teams. There are a few trade unions.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. The gendered division of labor resulted from efforts of Christian missionaries and French colonial officials to introduce a Western cultural system. In this system, men were defined as the breadwinners and heads of families and the ideal roles for women were as helpmates and nurturers. Before the introduction of development programs in the 1960s, men were responsible for taro gardens, tree crop plantations, and fishing, and women devoted themselves to motherhood and household maintenance. Women also assisted their husbands in agricultural production and fishing. Men tended to dominate the income-earning opportunities in the processing of copra and vanilla. Rural and urban development schemes after the 1960s expanded men's opportunities in commercial agriculture and introduced wage-earning jobs. Although women in some of the archipelagoès were drawn into wage labor, these opportunities were dominated by men.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. The ability of men to earn money became an essential part of their breadwinning role. After the 1960s, a close association developed between income-earning ability and household decision making. Men's predominance in income-earning activities and greater income were translated into greater control over household decision making. This authority is not supported by an ideology of male superiority. Belief in the interdependence, complementarity, and equality of men's and women's activities and capabilities exists in urban and rural settings.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Residents recognize several kinds or degrees of marital union. At one end of the continuum is the union of a couple instituted by civil (French) and church ceremonies and celebrated by wedding feasts for relatives, officials, and friends. At the other end are couples that live and eat together without a civil ceremony who are committed to raising a family together and are considered by their neighbors to be married.

Domestic Unit. The most important residential unit is the nuclear family. Many nuclear families include adopted children. Most often couples initially live with the parents of the man or woman and later establish a separate domestic unit.

Inheritance. People recognize bilateral kinship units that control the use of land. Individuals must demonstrate their connections to one of these units in order to claim use rights to plots of family land. Those rights are inherited by one's children.

Kin Groups. All of the mother and fathers' relatives are considered kin. Although not an important corporate or social group in an individual's life, one's bilateral kin group is an important source of mutual aid, and through membership in a kin group, individuals acquire use rights to land.


Infant Care. Residents adore children, and most couples look forward to raising a family. Infants and children are raised under the influence of parents as well as grandparents, siblings, and other relatives. Infants are the center of attention in households.

Child Rearing and Education. Children are socialized by a network of kin within and outside the nuclear family household. There is little parental interference in the teaching of skills because people believe in a child's autonomy. The goal is to make children docile so that they will want to act in the "right" way. Children form peer play groups, and much of a child's training takes place in that context.

Higher Education. There is a 98 percent literacy rate. Primary, secondary, and vocational schools were established by the French. Schooling is free and compulsory between ages six and fourteen. Teaching is in French, although a few hours per week of Tahitian are provided in primary and secondary school. Private schools run by churches and subsidized by the government teach the same curriculum as the public schools. Adult education is offered at no charge. French Polynesians can attend college in France or pursue a degree at the French University of the Pacific (UFP), which has a campus in French Polynesia. The geographic fragmentation of the territory complicates the organization of education.


Reciprocity, generosity, and hospitality are central values. When guests are invited for a meal, the hosts are not necessarily expected to eat. Tahitians greet each other by shaking hands and/or exchanging kisses on the cheek. Unless there is a large number of people in the room, it is considered impolite not to shake hands with all of them. It also is considered impolite to keep one's shoes on when entering another person's home.


Religious Beliefs. The conversion of residents to Christianity occurred after the London Missionary School sent evangelical Protestant missionaries to Tahiti in 1797. Catholicism was introduced much later by the French. The Catholic population lives primarily in the Gambier and Marquesas archipelagoès. Protestantism predominates in the Society, Austral, and Tuamotu island groups. Today 49 percent of the population is Protestant, 33 percent is Catholic, 5 percent is Mormon, 5 percent is Sanito, and 4 percent is Seventh-Day Adventist.

Before Western contact, people believed in a pantheon of distant gods and a host of local and family spirits that affected daily life.

Many residents believe in ancestral spirits. These spirits gather around the village and are encountered as the ghosts of formerly living people.

Religious Practitioners. In Protestant areas, the Christian faith, the church, and the pastor are central features of village life. Pastors preside over the religious activities of the community, conduct Sunday school, teach the Bible, conduct weddings and funerals, and provide communion. The village pastor is also a protector of community morality and can affect political decision making. Elders have an important power base in the church, and one of their primary roles is to assist the pastor in enforcing social control. Some contemporary villages have indigenous practitioners (primarily male) who use their knowledge and control of spirits and ghosts to heal people who have a spirit-caused disorder.

Rituals and Holy Places. Many rituals involve the events of the Christian calendar year, such as cemetery visiting on All Saints' Day, or the annual re-enactment of the arrival of the missionaries by boat. There are a number of rituals that involve life-cycle events such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. For example, traditional weddings include the ceremonial presentation of gifts including traditional speech making and dancing. The annual collection of church tithes by the Protestant churches on May Day also involves ritual oratory and ceremonial visitation of local households.

Ancient Polynesian temple platforms, marae, are still considered to be holy places by many Polynesians even though indigenous religious practice has largely ceased. Professional traditional dance companies stage ritual re-enactments of ancient ceremonies on a reconstructed temple platform in the Tahitian district of Paea for tourists and visiting dignitaries.

Death and the Afterlife. Residents traditionally believed that people have both a physical body and a soul. The soul inhabits the body during life, though it can wander during dreaming. Death occurs when the soul leaves the body. Some Christians believe in the existence of two souls. At death, a person's true soul goes to God's world and remains in heaven or hell. A second soul or spirit leaves the body and wanders around the village.

Medicine and Health Care

Health conditions are generally good, with high life expectancy and a low infant mortality rate. In 1998, the major causes of death were cardiovascular problems, cancer, and traumatic injury. Medical care is paid for by the government. There are thirtyfour hospitals and 369 doctors in the territory. Some islands lack a resident doctor. Indigenous medicine is widely utilized despite the recent introduction of Western biomedical techniques. Indigenous healing techniques include the use of herbal medicines, herbal baths, massage, and cupping. Indigenous healing has undergone a revitalization, and associations have developed to protect the heritage of local healing and ensure the authenticity of healers and their practice of local medicine.

Secular Celebrations

Public holidays are 1 January (New Year's Day), 5 March (Arrival of the first missionaries), Good Friday, Easter, Easter Monday, 1 May (May Day), 8 May (V-E Day), the last Thursday in May (Ascension), the first Sunday and Monday in June (Pentecost and Pentecost Monday), 29 June (Internal Autonomy Day), 14 July (Bastille Day), 15 August (Assumption), 1 November (All Saints' Day), 11 November (Armistice Day), and 25 December (Christmas). Other popular holidays are Chinese New Year, the Tahiti festival in July, and the Hawaiki Nui Canoe race.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. There are a few formal grant programs, but many artists benefit from patronage relationships with government offices and major institutions. Practitioners of traditional handicrafts may register with the government and eventually receive a partial pension. In general, artists are self-supporting.

Literature. Nearly all fiction is written by expatriate European and Americans. Indigenous Polynesian genres such as storytelling, political and religious oratory, and song writing continue to be popular.

Graphic Arts. French Polynesia attracted many European painters and continues to support painters of island landscapes and residents. Indigenous graphic arts such as sculpture in wood, stone, and coral; the creation of hats, mats, and baskets; tattooing; the making of patchwork quilts; and decorative shell work continue to thrive. The practice of decorating bark cloth has largely disappeared, but several artists are attempting to revive this ancient art form.

Performance Arts. Musical performance genres range from highly stylized hymn singing, to humorous storytelling songs, to popular ballads and local rock and pop music. In addition to "classic" local songs, new songs and music are performed and distributed locally. Musical performance is widely practiced, and a favorite activity is to sit with friends and family after supper and sing old classic ballads as a group, accompanied by ukulele, guitar, and spoons. Traditional drumming is widely practiced, often as an accompaniment to dance performances.

Modern ("disco") dance, local variants of ballroom dances, and traditional Polynesian dance are popular. Traditional dance is performed by many amateur and professional troupes.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

There are many scientific institutions and programs. At the national level, the Institut de Recherche pour le Developement has the largest scientific library collection. Territorial research organizations operate under government ministries and include the Institut Rechereches Medicales Louis Mallarde, which conducts medical research on tropical diseases, and the Centre Polynesien de Sciences Humains, the sponsoring organization for archaeology, folklore, and ethnographic studies. A number of organizations are devoted to the marine sciences, including territorial government offices and international institutions as well as visiting research ships. The diversity of scientific institutions reflects the territory's relations with France and well-developed local government. Together with the French University of the Pacific, this combination of national, local, and international scientific organizations conducts research activities.


Elliston, Deborah. "En/Gendering Nationalism: Colonialism, Sex and Independence in French Polynesia." Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1997.

Finney, Ben. Polynesian Peasants and Proletarians, 1973.

Hanson, F. Allan. Rapan Lifeways: Society and History on a Polynesian Island, 1970.

Henry, Lisa. The Reconstruction of Tahitian Healing, 1999.

Levy, Robert. Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands, 1973.

Lockwood, Victoria. Tahitian Transformation: Gender and Capitalist Development in a Rural Society, 1993.

Oliver, Douglas. Two Tahitian Villages: A Study in Comparison, 1981.

Jeanette Dickerson-Putman and Laura Jones

French Polynesia

views updated Jun 08 2018

French Polynesia

French Polynesia is a group of islands in the South Pacific, including five archipelagos: the Austral Islands, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamotu Islands, and the Society Islands (Tahiti, Mooréa, Tetiaroa, Raiatea, Tahoa, Huahine, Bora-Bora, and Maupiti).

The first European sailors to reach this part of the world were Spanish (Alvaro Mendaña de Neira [1541–1595] reached the Marquesas in 1595) and Portuguese (Pedro Fernandez de Quirós [1565–1615] reached Tuamotu in 1605), though neither initial ventures led to imperial control in these areas. The rekindling of important shipping expeditions in the Pacific over the eighteenth century (particularly Samuel Wallis [1728–1795] in 1767 and James Cook [1728–1779] between 1769 and 1777 for Britain; Louis-Antoine de Bougainville [1729–1811] in 1768 and Jean-François de La Pérouse [1741–1788] in 1786 for France) sharply increased interest in these areas, while also sharpening Anglo-French colonial rivalries.

Initially, Britain held the advantage, as English Protestant missionary groups gained favor with the Pomaré dynasty (1762–1880), which reigned over Tahiti and the surrounding islands of Mooréa, Tuamotu, Mehetia, Tubai, and Raivave. However, the London Missionary Society was never able to induce London to establish a British protectorate in the region.

In contrast, France's search for ports and prestige led to annexation of the Marquesas and the establishment of a protectorate in 1842. The same occurred in Tahiti at the request of the Queen Pomaré IV (1813–1877). A protectorate agreement by the French recognized the sovereignty of the Marquesas and Tahiti states and the authority of the local chiefs.

Although the British instigated local rebellions, French influence prevailed over the next six decades, leaving a lasting impact in the region. After the abdication of King Pomaré V (1839–1891) on June 29, 1880, France seized the opportunity to annex Tahiti, and then the Gambier Islands the following year, the "Islands-Under-the-Wind" (Raiatea, Tahoa, Huahine, Bora-Bora, and Maupiti) between 1888 and 1897, and the Austral Islands in 1902. These different archipelagos then took the name of "French Settlement of Oceania" until 1957, when they became French Polynesia.

As with many French colonies, inhabitants of these islands have expressed a desire for autonomy since World War II. In 1946, with the new French constitution, the islands became a French overseas territory. Since 2003, they have been an internally autonomous overseas collectivity.

see also Pacific, European Presence in.


Hough, Richard. Captain James Cook. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1994.

Pollock, Nancy J., and Ron Crocombe, eds. French Polynesia: A Book of Selected Readings. Suva, Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies of the University of the South Pacific, 1988.

Thompson, Virginia, and Richard Adloff. The French Pacific Islands: French Polynesia and New Caledonia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

French Polynesia

views updated May 29 2018

French Polynesia

Basic Data

Official Country Name:French Polynesia
Region (Map name):Oceania
Language(s):French, Tahitian
Literacy rate:98%

French Polynesia, a collection of volcanic islands and atolls in the eastern South Pacific, is perhaps best known for its largest island, Tahiti.

There are two daily newspapers in French Polynesia, both publishing in French and originating in Tahiti. Neither publishes on Sunday. La Dépĉche is the largest and more renowned of the two; its circulation is approximately 14,000 and it maintains a website. Founded in 1961, Les Nouvelles de Tahiti was the island's first daily newspaper; it has a circulation of 6,700 and provides news content to the Web portal .

The islands also support two major weekly publications. The Tahiti Sun Press is published in English and geared toward English-speaking tourists. It is distributed free of charge in local hotels. TahitiRama, which appears online and every Thursday in print, focuses on art and fashion and is a spin-off of a popular television show.

French Polynesia has three television stations broadcasting to approximately 30,000 televisions. There are 14 FM radio stations, two AM radio stations, and more than 100,000 radios. There are two Internet service providers.

The country encompasses five major island groups: the Society Islands (which include Tahiti and Bora Bora), the Tuamotus, the Marquesas, the Austral Islands, and the Gambier Islands. Today the country is a French overseas territory; French rule began in Tahiti in 1824 and spread to the other islands in the area during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

The official head of state is the French president, represented locally by a high commissioner of the republic. The local government is headed by a president of territorial government, and the unicameral, 41-seat territorial assembly also is presided over by a President. The approximate population of French Polynesia is 250,000, with the majority of the population located on Tahiti. The official language is French, although Tahitian is spoken throughout the islands. Not surprisingly, tourism makes up the largest part of the economy, making up about 25 percent of the gross national product. The black pearl industry is also an important economic sector.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). "French Polynesia." World Factbook 2001. 2001. Available from

Tahiti Friendship Society. . 2002. Available from 2002. Available from

Jenny B. Davis

French Polynesia

views updated May 23 2018

French Polynesia

Basic Data
Official Country Name:French Polynesia
Language(s):French, Tahitian
Literacy Rate:98%

French Polynesia is an overseas territory of France that includes Tahiti and 118 smaller islands in the eastern South Pacific. There are 5 major islands (archipelagos): Society Islands, which include Tahiti and Moorea; the Marquesas Islands; the Austral Islands; the Tuamotu Archipelago; and the Gambier Islands.

Children generally start school at age 5 and complete primary education by age 12. The ages of compulsory education are 6 through 16. Tahiti has a literacy rate of 98 percent. On some of the smaller islands though, the dropout rate is extremely high, with only 20 percent or fewer students even finishing elementary school.

All school instruction is in French. French Polynesia has the same educational system as France, but it is altered slightly to conform with needs specific to the territories. Additionally, public education is financed through the government, which also subsidizes some private schools that are operated by churches.

Higher education can be attained in French Polynesia. In 1987, the French University of the Pacific was founded in Papeete, Tahiti, to encourage citizens to attain higher education more frequently and to develop scientific and cultural relationships with other countries.


The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The World Factbook 2000. Directorate of Intelligence, 1 January 2000. Available from

Tahiti Friendship Society. The Friendship Society, 1997. Available from

LeAnna DeAngelo

French Polynesia

views updated May 14 2018

French Polynesia French overseas territory in the s central Pacific Ocean, consisting of more than 130 islands, divided into five scattered archipelagos: Society Islands, Marquesas Islands, Tuamotu Archipelago, Gambier Islands, and the Tubuai Islands; the capital is Papeete on Tahiti (Society Islands). The larger islands are volcanic with fertile soil and dense vegetation. The more numerous coral islands are low lying. The climate is tropical. Missionaries arrived in Tahiti at the end of the 18th century, and in the 1840s France began establishing protectorates. In 1880–82, France annexed the islands and they became part of its colony of Oceania. In 1958, they received the status of an overseas territory. In recent years, there have been demands for autonomy in Tahiti – the largest and most populous island. In the 1960s, the French government began nuclear testing on Mururoa atoll, leading to worldwide protests. In 1995, the French government put forward proposals to grant Polynesia the status of an autonomous overseas territory. Copra and vanilla are the leading agricultural products, and cultured pearls are exported. Tourism has grown considerably in recent years. Area: 3265sq km (1260sq mi). Pop. (2002) 245,405.

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