French Polynesia country brief
French Polynesia comprises five archipelagos (Society, Tuamotu, Marquesas, Gambier and Australs) spread over 5.3 million square kilometres in the middle of the South Pacific ocean, approximately 6,000 kilometres east of Australia and 7,500 kilometres west of Chile. French Polynesia’s main island, Tahiti, became a French protectorate in 1842, and France took possession of French Polynesia as a whole in 1880. The population is 277 300.
French Polynesia was designated an Overseas Territory of France in 1946 and given a Territorial Assembly on 25 October 1946. French Polynesia's constitutional status ('Statut') defines its institutions, legal powers and relationship with France. The French Government has amended this Statut several times since 1946.
The government of French Polynesia was given executive responsibility for many areas (including local financial and economic affairs, customs and taxation, tourism, transport, agriculture, fisheries, public works, health, primary and secondary education, social welfare and other internal matters). A new Statut in 1996 gave French Polynesia ‘autonomous status' and broadened its powers to include control over its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), air and sea transport links, telecommunications and postal services and internal security. French Polynesia was also enabled to negotiate and sign in its own right administrative arrangements and regional cooperation agreements with countries in the Pacific region.
Under amendments made to France's Constitution in 2003 to decentralise power in France, French Polynesia is allowed like other parts of France some greater measures of local self-regulation. However, the constitutional amendments also strongly anchored all the French overseas possessions to the French Republic by including the names of all ten overseas entities in the French Constitution. French Polynesia is among the ‘overseas collectivities' (collectivités d'outre-mer), which are governed by Article 74 of France's Constitution.
Under Article 74, a new statut came into force through an Organic Law on 27 February 2004. This strengthened French Polynesia's degree of autonomy and redefined the former overseas territory as ‘an overseas country within the French Republic' (pays d'outre-mer as specified in article 1 of the Organic Law). The position of President of French Polynesia was created and a new electoral system for the Assembly was established.
The French Government is represented in French Polynesia by a High Commissioner, currently responsible for police and justice, monetary policy, tertiary education, immigration, and defence and foreign affairs.
French Polynesia is a parliamentary democracy, with a 57-seat Assembly and an executive headed by a president elected by a simple majority vote within the assembly for a five year term. Assembly members also serve five year terms. French Polynesia uses its own flag, seal and anthem in conjunction with the French national symbols.
The political environment in French Polynesia has been marked by considerable instability in recent years with 12 changes of government since 2004. The dominant personalities are Gaston Flosse, Gaston Tong Sang and Oscar Temaru. Flosse ran the government under previous arrangements for most of the 20 years to 2004, but has since been subject to a number of criminal investigations. Tong Sang is leader of the anti-independence coalition To Tatou Ai'a. Oscar Temaru leads the pro-independence coalition UPLD.
On 6 May 2013 the Tahoeraa Huiraatira party won over 45 per cent of votes in the second round of territorial elections, ending Oscar Termaru’s two-year Presidency. Gaston Flosse was sworn in as President on 17 May 2013.
In May 2013, French Polynesia was reinscribed on the UN list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.
French Polynesia's economy has faced a number of challenges since the conclusion of nuclear testing in 1996, due largely to the country's limited resources and options for diversification, and to its isolation. Financial transfers from France (around $2 billion per annum) have traditionally made up around 30 per cent of French Polynesia's GDP, but in recent years this has risen as high as 60 per cent. Of these transfers, some 83 per cent constitute expenditure on education and research, defence, public service salaries and pensions, with some 17 per cent going directly to the French Polynesian and municipal governments for administration and investment.
Since 2004, economic activity has been negatively influenced by domestic political instability. In addition, two mainstays of the economy – pearls and tourism – have under-performed in recent years due to strong competition and declining revenues.
The Australian Consul-General in Noumea is accredited to French Polynesia, and Australia has an Honorary Consul based in Papeete.
Relations between Australia and French Polynesia improved markedly after France ended its nuclear testing program in 1996. Australia provides up to $1 million annually to fund vocational training and tertiary degrees in Australia for students from New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna. Since 2007, Australia has awarded 20 Australia Awards Scholarships to French Polynesian students. The scholarships are focused on employment needs in tourism and hospitality, natural and physical sciences, engineering, management and commerce international relations and trade, information technology and specialised English language training.
Visa waiver arrangements negotiated by Australia and France in 1998, and a working holiday-maker arrangement with France from 1 January 2004, have also been beneficial in promoting two-way exchange.
In 2012, Australian merchandise exports to French Polynesia totalled $51 million (including cereal preparations, coffee and substitutes, and edible products). But import duties on non-EU products and some quotas restrict Australia's market. Distance and transport costs are other limiting factors. An ongoing program of tax reform, involving the phased elimination of a number of French Polynesian import duties in favour of a Value Added Tax, should make market access conditions more attractive in the longer term, although French exporters will probably continue to enjoy certain practical advantages (including existing relationships and a common language and legal system). In 2012, Australia imported $3 million worth of goods from French Polynesia, mostly black pearls. As French Polynesia is currently entitled to 'developing country' status under the Australian Customs Tariff, most French Polynesian goods entering the Australian market are given a five percent reduction on the general tariff rate.
In March 2011, former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles visited French Polynesia. In 2010, the Mayor of Pirae and Member of the French Polynesian National Assembly, Béatrice Vernaudon, visited Australia as part of the Special Visits Program.
French Polynesia maintains close ties with other Pacific island countries and territories, particularly its near Polynesian neighbours, through trading partnerships and other links. French Polynesia was granted Observer status to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in 2004 and in 2006 attended the PIF for the first time as an Associate Member. French Polynesia is a member of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), the South Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP), the Pacific Islands Development Program (PIDP), and the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO).
Australians travelling to French Polynesia are advised to consult the Smartraveller travel advice.
Updated September 2013