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Quick facts

Official Name: French Polynesia
Indigenous Peoples: Maohi (Tahitians)
Official Languages: Tahitian, French
Political Status: Semi-autonomous French territory
Capital: Pape’ete
Population: 268,270 (2012 est.)
Greeting: La ora na

Audio bite from How to speak Tahitian!

History and geography

A Tahitian house before 1910. Photo from Frederick William Christian (1910) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Tahitian house before 1910. Photo from Frederick William Christian (1910) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The islands of French Polynesia make up a total land area of 3,521 sq km (1,359 sq mi), scattered over more than 2,000 km (1,200 mi) of ocean in the South Pacific. French Polynesia is divided into five groups of islands: The Society Islands archipelago composed of the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands; the Tuamotu Archipelago; the Gambier Islands; the Marquesas Islands; and the Austral Islands. Among its 118 islands and atolls, 67 are inhabited. Tahiti, which is located within the Society Islands, is the most populous island and the seat of the capital of the collectivity, Pape’ete. About 68% of the population of the islands lived in Pape’ete in 2012. Although not an integral part of its territory, Clipperton Island was administered from French Polynesia until 2007. The highest point of French Polynesia is Mount Orohena in Tahiti.

French Polynesia was one of the last places in the Pacific to be settled. Scientists believe the Great Polynesian Migration happened around 1500 BC. The first islands of French Polynesia to be settled were the Marquesas Islands about 200 BC. The Polynesians later discovered the Society Islands around 300AD.

Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan sighted one of the islands on his voyage around the world in 1521, beginning a long history of European interaction with Polynesia.

French Polynesians were first granted French citizenship in 1946 when the islands’ status was changed to an overseas territory. The islands’ name was changed in 1957 to Polynésie Française (French Polynesia). French Polynesia was granted partial internal autonomy in 1977 which was extended in 1984. French Polynesia became a full overseas collectivity of France in 2003.

Tourism is the main economic industry. Additionally, Tahitian pearl farming is a good source of export revenue. The islands also export vanilla, fruits, flowers and other natural products. French Polynesia has a moderately developed economy based on tourism and support from France.

Arts and culture

French Polynesia (Tahiti) performance at the Solomon Islands FestPac 2012. Photo by Ron J. Castro.

French Polynesia (Tahiti) performance at the Solomon Islands FestPac 2012. Photo by Ron J. Castro.

Much of traditional Polynesian culture and arts, such as dancing (tamure), music, tattooing, and religion, disappeared in large part under the influence of Christian missionaries in the late 18th century. The beauty of the islands drew artists such as the French painter Paul Gaugin, who lived first in Tahiti. Gauguin painted Polynesian images and spiritual themes into his work, and a number of his paintings, as well as the works of other artists, is displayed in the Paul Gauguin Museum on Tahiti.

Greater attention is being paid to Polynesian culture with the advent of tourism, including the increased use of the Tahitian language and its elevation to the status of an official language in the late 20th century. An ethnographic museum and learned society in Pape’ete have contributed to efforts to preserve French Polynesia’s cultural heritage.

Helpful POP Culture section links:
Polynesian Delegations click here>>>
People of Pacific Cultures (POP Cultures), the main page click here>>>
POP Cultures: People of Melanesia click here>>>
POP Cultures: People of Micronesia click here>>>