French Polynesia profile - Overview

  • 17 March 2015
  • From the section Asia
Map of French Polynesia

French Polynesia is a sprawling possession of France in the Pacific Ocean, made up of 118 volcanic and coral islands and atolls, including Tahiti.

For France this huge stretch of the Pacific - as big as Western Europe - remains strategically valuable. Atomic testing on the atolls enabled France to keep the nuclear clout it needed to remain one of the world's leading powers.

The issue of independence dominates the political agenda. There are five island groups - the Society Islands, the Tuamotu archipelago, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas Islands and the Tubuai Islands. Tahiti is the most densely-populated island.

Image caption Numerous nuclear tests were carried out on Mururoa atoll

European contact was gradual; the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and British were credited with the discovery of one or more of the islands. In the 18th century European traders and missionaries came, bringing diseases that wiped out much of the indigenous population.

The missionaries tried to put a stop to local religious practices, nudity and other aspects of indigenous life. Some forms of Polynesian culture were lost for many years.

Tahiti, in the Society islands, became a French colony in 1880. France later annexed other islands to form the French Colony of Oceania. In 1946 the islands became an overseas territory and in 2004 gained "overseas country" status.

Image caption Tahiti offers spectacular tropical mountain landscapes

Pro-independence movements flourished in the 1970s and over time the islands took more control of internal affairs, culminating in a statute granting increased autonomy in 1996.

The United Nations General Assembly voted in June 2013 to place French Polynesia back on the UN list of territories that should be decolonized and asked France to ''facilitate rapid progress… towards a self-determination process".

Polynesia's pro-independence party had asked for the territory to be put back on the UN list when it controlled the government in 2011. However, it has since been replaced by a party that backs the existing autonomy granted by France.

There has been friction with Paris over nuclear testing. France conducted 41 atmospheric tests on the Mururoa atoll and neighbouring Fangataufa from 1966. In 1975, under international pressure, it switched to underground tests.

Ending a three year moratorium, French President Jacques Chirac said testing would resume in 1995. The move provoked international anger and protests in Papeete turned violent.

Radiation levels 'no threat'

Six of the eight planned tests were carried out, the last one in January 1996. At the end of the programme Paris agreed to a 10-year compensation package.

In 1995 the UN's nuclear watchdog concluded that radiation levels around the atolls posed no threat. In 1999 Paris admitted that fractures had been discovered in the coral cone at the sites. The atolls continue to be monitored.

In March 2009, the French government enacted legislation to allow compensation for former workers at France's nuclear weapons test sites.

In November 2014, French Polynesia's assembly adopted a resolution asking France to pay nearly $1bn in compensation for the environmental damage caused by its nuclear weapons tests. The resolution was tabled by the ruling anti-independence party without the support of the territorial government, signalling a major rift within the party's ranks.

French Polynesia enjoys a high standard of living, but wealth is unevenly distributed and unemployment is high.

Image caption French Polynesia stretches over an area as big as Western Europe

Tourism is an important money-earner; travellers favour Tahiti and Bora Bora. Boasting a year-round warm climate, volcanic peaks and tranquil lagoons, it is easy to see why the islands are popular. French Polynesia is, though, prone to typhoons.

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