The overseas territory of French Polynesia (Polynésie Française) in the South Pacific Ocean includes five island groups. The Society Islands (Îles de la Société) were discovered by the British in 1767 and named after the Royal Society, are the most important. They include Tahiti (at 17° 40′ S and about 149° 20′ W ), the largest French Polynesian island with an area of 1,042 sq km (402 sq mi); Moorea; and Raiatea. The French established a protectorate in 1844 and made the islands a colony in 1880. The Marquesas Islands (Îles Marquises, between 8° and 11° S and 138° and 141° W ), about 1,500 km (930 mi) NE of Tahiti, were discovered by Spaniards in 1595 and annexed by France in 1842. The Tuamotu Islands, about 480 km (300 mi) S and SW of the Marquesas and consisting of 78 islands scattered over an area of 800 sq km (310 sq mi), were discovered by Spaniards in 1606 and annexed by France in 1881. The Gambier Islands, SE of the Tuamotus, were discovered by the British in 1797 and annexed by France in 1881. Three of the islands, Mangareva, Taravai, and Akamaru, are inhabited. The Tubuai or Austral Islands (Îles Australes), south of the Society Islands, were discovered in 1777 by James Cook and annexed by France in 1880. Clipperton Island (10° 18′ N and 109° 12′ W ), an uninhabited atoll SW of Mexico and about 2,900 km (1,800 mi) west of Panama, was claimed by France in 1858 and given up by Mexico, which also had claimed it, in 1932. In 1979, it was placed under direct control of the French government. Total area of the territory is between 3,600 and 4,200 sq km (1,400 and 1,600 sq mi).
The estimated mid-2002 population was 257,847, of whom about 78% were Polynesian, 12% Chinese, and 10% European. About 55% of the population is Protestant and 30% is Roman Catholic; there are also small animist and Buddhist minorities. French and Tahitian (a Maori dialect) are the official languages; English is also spoken. Marine life is abundant, both in the surrounding ocean and in rivers and streams; there are no indigenous mammals.
The territory is divided into five administrative areas (circonscriptions). A 49-member territorial assembly is elected every five years by universal suffrage. A council of ministers, headed by a president picked by the assembly, chooses a vice-president and nine other ministers. The president assists the French-appointed high commissioner, who is the administrator for the whole territory of French Polynesia. The Economic Social and Cultural Council, composed of representatives of industry and professional groups, is a consultative body. Two deputies and a senator represent the territory in the French parliament.
Tourism produces income of more than CFP 40 billion yearly; visitor numbers exceeded 250,000 for the first time in 2000. Seven international airlines operate to and from French Polynesia. Tropical fruit, vanilla, coffee, and coconuts are the principal agricultural products. Fishing has intensified in recent years, especially for tuna and shark meat. Phosphate deposits, mined on Makatea in the Tuamotu Islands, were exhausted by 1966. The Pacific Nuclear Test Center, constructed on the atoll of Mururoa in the 1960s, the Office for Overseas Scientific and Technical Research, and the Oceanological Center of the Pacific (which experiments with shrimp and oyster breeding) operate in the region. A space telecommunications station is based at Tahiti. In 1996, France definitively halted all nuclear testing in French Polynesia, after it had resumed nuclear testing on the Mururoa atoll in 1995.
Currency is the Communauté Française de Pacifique franc, linked to the euro at a rate of €1=CFP Fr1 19.25. Exports in 1999 totaled US $205 million (mostly cultured black pearls and coconut products); imports, US $749 million.
There are a number of hospitals and private clinics on the island, and one large government hospital on Tahiti. The educational system is well-developed, and the Université de la Polynésie Française (UPF) was created in 1999, out of the former Université Française du Pacifique. The UPF had 2,372 students preparing for a diploma during the 2002–03 academic year. Agricultural and technical schools also offer postsecondary education.
French Polynesia in 1995 had 3 daily newspapers, 5 AM stations, 2 FM radio stations, and 6 TV stations.