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Summary Article: French Polynesia
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

officially Overseas Lands of French Polynesia, internally self-governing dependency (2015 est. pop. 278,000) of France, consisting of 118 islands in the South Pacific. The capital is Papeete, on Tahiti. The territory comprises five main groups: the Society Islands; Marquesas Islands; Austral Islands; Tuamotu Archipelago; and Gambier Islands. The small, uninhabited atoll of Clipperton Island, c.3,400 mi (5,470 km) NE of Tahiti, is administered by France from French Polynesia.

People, Economy, and Government

The inhabitants of French Polynesia are mainly indigenous Polynesians or those of mixed Polynesian and European descent (known as Demis); about 55% are Protestant and 30% are Roman Catholic. There is a considerable Chinese and a smaller French minority. French and Tahitian are both official languages.

Tropical fruits and coffee are grown on plantations, and there is pearl farming and deep-sea commercial fishing. Tourism is also important to the economy. Cultured pearls, coconut products, mother-of-pearl, vanilla, and shark meat are exported, while fuels, foodstuffs, and equipment are imported.

French Polynesia is governed under the 1958 French constitution. The president of France, represented by the High Commissioner of the Republic, is the head of state. The government is headed by the president of French Polynesia, who is elected by the legislature for a five-year term; there are no term limits. Members of the 57-seat Territorial Assembly are elected by popular vote for five-year terms. The territory also elects two deputies to the National Assembly and one member to the Senate of France.


Beginning c.300 A.D., migrating Polynesians settled the islands that later became French Polynesia, and from the islands subsequently settled Hawaii, New Zealand, and other parts of Polynesia. European contact began in the 16th cent., and the area was widely explored by the French during the 18th and 19th cent., when French missionaries also came to the region. The Marquesas and Society groups were annexed by France in 1842, Tahiti in 1844, and by the end of the 19th cent. the other islands had come under French administration. Uniform governance of the area began in 1903, and the islands became an overseas territory in 1946.

France began testing nuclear weapons in some parts of French Polynesia in the 1960s, meeting with widespread local opposition; a series of six tests in 1995–96 was declared by France to be the last. Many inhabitants have sought a greater measure of independence from French control, and limited autonomy was awarded in 1984. In 2004 the territory became a French overseas country. France granted the territory greater autonomy in most local affairs and regional relations but retained control of law enforcement, defense, and the money supply. The territory's government has been marked by instability at times, with pro-independence, pro-autonomy, and independent legislators forming and re-forming coalitions based on a mix of ideology and expendiency.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

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