Skip to main content

Tentative Steps in Tahiti

Te Ao Maohi (known to most as French Polynesia) is comprised of five distinct island chains, the Society Islands (both "Windward" and "Leeward"), the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamotu Islands, the Austral Islands, and the Gambier Islands. In all, French Polynesia's 118 islands and atolls constitute only 1,359 square miles of land-mass, but the archipelagos are scattered over one million square miles of ocean, making France the second largest presence in the Pacific. The majority of French Polynesia's 220,000 residents make their homes on the "Windward" Society Islands, a chain containing the two most populated islands, Tahiti and Moorea.

France's official relationship with these islands began in 1842, when France declared Tahiti and the Marquesas a French protectorate. When France defeated the Polynesian independence effort in 1847 after three years of war, the Polynesian ruler Queen Pomare IV reluctantly accepted French protectorate status. In 1880, France negotiated an agreement with the Queen's son and heir, Pomare V, to purchase the islands, transforming the protectorate into an officially recognized colony. For nearly 80 years, French Polynesia remained a colonial possession of France, with residents gaining French citizenship as late as 1945. In 1958, France reclassified the colony as an overseas territory of the French Republic, a classification that continues to define French Polynesia's status.

Today, French Polynesia maintains its own territorial government, complete with its own President and a legislative Territorial Assembly with representatives from throughout the islands. As part of the French Republic, French Polynesia holds two seats in the French Assembly and sends one representative to the French Senate. Despite this gesture to the ideal of autonomy, the French government, represented by a High Commissioner of the Republic in Tahiti, continues to retain responsibility over issues such as law enforcement, property, and civic rights.

Residents of French Polynesia are vocal advocates for independence and sovereignty, but the territory's relationship with France has often appeared tranquil to outside observers. This image was shaken for the first time in 1963 when France announced that it planned to move its nuclear testing site from Algeria to the Moruroa and Fangataufa Atolls in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Despite sustained protests, France conducted 46 atmospheric tests (in violation of a 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty) between 1966 and 1975. Starting in 1975, France began conducting nuclear tests underground, in shafts drilled through the atolls and their lagoons, and continued these underground tests until President Mitterrand declared a moratorium on testing in 1992.

Three years later, French Polynesia jumped back into the international spotlight when President Chirac announced that France would resume underground testing. The day after the first test was conducted, hundreds of anti-French demonstrators rampaged through the streets of Papeete, in Tahiti. Buildings throughout the city were gutted and more than 20 people were injured in the conflict between protesters and the French police. In the aftermath of the riots, President Gaston Flosse, leader of the pro-France territorial government, attributed the riots to a "small minority" and placed the blame with Oscar Temaru, leader of French Polynesia's main independence party, Tavini Huiraatira. Despite heightened international criticism, including a U.N. resolution condemning the testing, France continued to carry out its planned series of nuclear tests. Between 1975 and the time President Chirac finally agreed to cease testing in 1996, 147 tests had been conducted on Moruroa and Fangataufa.

Using the well-publicized protests of the controversial French tests to raise awareness of its campaigns, French Polynesia's independence movement has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. In the 1996 territorial elections, Oscar Temaru's Tavini Huiraatira independence party won 11 of the 41 seats in the Territorial Assembly and Temaru himself has become increasingly vocal in his independence advocacy. Still, despite these public advances, Temaru remains solemn. In a recent interview, Temaru cautioned, "I will celebrate when we win freedom for our people. Yes, they are beginning to learn their history; yes, they are at last permitted to speak their language. But we still have a very, very long way to go. The French have no intention of letting us go."

Ironically, the same military programs that galvanized the independence movement have left a legacy of dependence that continues to hinder the movement's advance. In 1995, France supported its nuclear testing operations in the territory by injecting $1.25 billion dollars into the French Polynesian economy, more than a third of the territory's GDP. To compensate for the lost income, France has promised to subsidize the territorial economy through 2006, a move that has solidified French Polynesia's dependence on France and made many residents fearful of the independence movement's potential impact on their standard of living. Indeed, according to a 1999 Bank of Hawaii report, "French Polynesia has the most complete basic physical, social and financial infrastructure in the Pacific after Hawaii and Guam." A steadily rising unemployment rate (16 percent in 1997) has also made working French Polynesians wary of any move to sever ties with France. In 1997, at least half of the territory's 79,000 wage earners worked at government-related jobs, placing them in a relatively poor position to lobby for independence.

Despite the formidable challenges facing Temaru and his supporters, several recent developments have given new hope to the independence movement. In June 1999, the French National Assembly unanimously passed a bill that would amend the French constitution and change French Polynesia's status from an "overseas territory" to an "overseas country." The amendment, which was later endorsed by the French Senate in October 1999, would, if passed, establish a French Polynesian citizenship, allowing local citizens priority access to jobs, land purchase, and business loans. The bill would also allow French Polynesia to negotiate and sign international treaties, but the French government would continue to retain control of key responsibilities, including the country's financial, defense, and judicial policies. Now that the bill has been endorsed by the National Assembly and the Senate, it only remains to be ratified by the French Congress in early 2000. Although many have recognized this action as a step forward for French Polynesian autonomy, pro-independence activists claim that such legislation is no substitute for a plan for full French Polynesian independence.


Benchley, Peter. "French Polynesia." National Geographic. June 1997. 7-29.

Field, Michael. "French Polynesia `as rich as New Zealand.'" Pacific Islands Monthly. September, 1999. 14.

"French Polynesia's President Flosse Vows to Fight Corruption Charges." ABC/Radio Australia Feature. 11/26/99.

"Pacific Actions" Website:

"France Explodes Fourth Nuclear Device in Pacific." USA Today. November 22, 1995. 4A.

Shenon, Philip. "Tahiti's Antinuclear Protests Turn Violent." The New York Times. September 8, 1995. A8.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.