Educational Challenges in French Polynesia

Written by Luzi Maj Leonhardt for Broken Chalk

French Polynesia represents a French overseas collective and consists of 121 islands in the eastern South Pacific. The islands comprise the five archipelagos, Society Islands, Tuamotu Islands, Marquesas Islands, Gambier Islands, and Austral Islands. The island of Tahiti and the capital Papeete, represent the political and economic centre of the country. Together, the size of the overall territory can be compared to the size of Europe. French Polynesia has approximately 300,000 inhabitants. 

French Polynesia was colonized by France in 1880 and became a French overseas territory in 1949. Since then, France granted more and more autonomy to local authorities, while the 2004 ‘Organic Law’ played a significant role in the country’s self-government. Consequently, since 2013, French Polynesia has been officially listed as a self-governing territory by the United Nations. 

The political system present in French Polynesia is a parliamentary democracy, with a 57-seat assembly and parliamentary elections in five-year terms. The current president is Moetai Brotherson, who won elections in May 2023 and, for the first time since 2004, belongs to a pro-independence party. However, according to local experts, this will most likely not result in a political referendum, but the high voter turnouts are due to dissatisfaction with the previous government during Covid 19. 

In general, the president of the French Republic is also the head of state of French Polynesia, which reveals the strong influence France remains to have on the economic and political development.

French influence in French Polynesia

Historically, for many people, the French administration in French Polynesia is strongly connected to the 193 nuclear tests conducted by the French state between 1966 and 1996. These areal and underground tests had severe consequences for the environment, health, and economy, and victims struggle to obtain compensation and recognition until today. Even though, in 2021, compensation procedures reached new importance in the Macron administration, the French government still denied their minimalization of the impacts of contaminations during the project.

Nowadays, the economy of French Polynesia is rooted in tourism; approximately 68% of Polynesians work in the service sector. Therefore, the Covid-19 crisis and lockdown had severe consequences for the economy. Additionally, the country relies on the cultivation of black pearls and subsidies. The latter is mainly based on financial support by France to their overseas territory, which makes up 30% of the country’s GDP. These spending are distributed equally on the jurisdictions of the territorial government and French state-based responsibilities. French Polynesia reached autonomy in most local affairs and regional relations over time. However, France retains responsibilities in competencies such as law enforcement, defence, and education.

The educational system in French Polynesia

The French Polynesian educational system is regulated by local authorities and the French government. The state finances public education and subsidizes private institutions, operated by the church. Thereby, France holds key responsibilities in budget management and organization of state exams, such as teacher certifications and high-school finals.

The general school system is similar to the system in place in France, complying with French standards, including the curriculum. However, since the 2004 ‘Organic Law’, local authorities have gained more say and autonomy in the educational sector. This led to slight changes in the curriculum to match local needs and take historical, geographical, cultural, and social realities into account. 

In French Polynesia, education is compulsory until age sixteen, whereby primary education falls between the ages of five and twelve, while secondary education finishes at age seventeen. However, many children fail to comply due to language barriers, economic struggles, and cultural differences. As a form of higher education, the ‘Université de la Polynésie française’ was founded in 1987 in Outumaoro, Punaauia, Tahiti. The university is a non-profit higher education institution and has displayed a significant increase in students since 1999. In 2019, the number of students rose to 2898. Additionally, several technical schools offer special programs such as hotel business, service, and teaching. There are also different adult educational programs. 

The language of instruction in formal educational institutions is French. However, with new efforts of local adjustments and accessibility, the incorporation of the Tahitian language as a language of instruction makes up on average one in seven courses.

Language barrier in the educational system

French Polynesia has always been a multilingual country, with five different local languages in the archipelagos. Tahitian is the language of the islands, however, its recognition as an official language alongside French only took place in the 1980s. The formal recognition of indigenous languages has long been neglected and still plays a role in the contemporary educational system. 

Since the beginning of French influence, the language in the educational system has been French. This also means that until French became more popular in society, children started their academic careers in a foreign language. Especially on smaller islands, people mainly spoke Polynesian as their everyday language of socialization. The former educational system was not very tolerant towards indigenous languages and even formally banned Tahitian in schools for some time. However, in the early 2000s, France extended their early childhood and foreign language promotion as part of the EU’s multilingual education movement. This led to meaningful changes in language learning policies in French Polynesia. The program aimed to provide culturally responsive education and meant the inclusion of the Tahitian language in schools. 

Nevertheless, Tahitian only makes up a couple of hours per week, so nationalist groups proceed to fight for the equal incorporation of indigenous languages in the educational sector. Even though, the literacy rate on Tahiti is 98%, many smaller islands struggle with the educational system provided by the French administration, leading to high dropout rates. Education is compulsory until age sixteen, but only 20% of the students in French Polynesia, mainly from outer islands, finish elementary school. One reason for this is language difficulties, which lower the accessibility to the educational system. 

Additionally, English has become increasingly important over the last decade, especially in the tourism sector. Therefore, it was integrated into the elementary school curriculum in 2010 as a foreign language after a pilot project of five years. Unfortunately, this policy change faced severe difficulties due to a lack of teachers with sufficient language competencies. 

Although the educational system in French Polynesia mirrors the French educational system, statistical data conducted in elementary schools reveals a deficiency in the academic success of French Polynesian students. Experts connect this deficiency directly to the socio-linguistic context and emphasize the dependency of further professional opportunities for the students on educational success.


French Polynesia faces growing challenges of social and economic inequalities, including differences in wealth. About ¼ of the population lives below the poverty line, while most of the wealth lies with the rich elite, mainly French civil servants. The reason for this involves the absence of redistribution measures in the tax system, namely an income tax. One-half of the citizens live in rural areas due to poverty and a lack of opportunities for young people in urban areas, which leads to the creation of ‘shanty towns’ or slums surrounding bigger cities.

Demographically, French Polynesia is a young country; Approximately ¼ of the population is under 14 years old, and 35% is under 20 years old. However, due to the economic difficulties of the families and the already mentioned language limitations, many children drop out of school before the compulsory age of sixteen, narrowing their prospects for future employment. Consequently, 50% of the under twenty-five-year-olds are unemployed, and a big part of the young population struggles with underemployment. 


In conclusion, the educational approach in French Polynesia based on the French system and curriculum, is stable and provides a basis for substantial education. The foundations of education do not face severe challenges. However, by transferring the foreign French system to the academic sector in French Polynesia, the French administration failed to consider local societal and political circumstances. This is reflected in the clash over the language used in schools. Given that language poses the main challenge in French Polynesia, other issues, like the increase in unemployment, are connected to it. So, it’s crucial to focus on making improvements in this area.

Research on child learning suggests significant advantages of bilingual and multilingual education. Including the children’s native language by linking socialization and education will improve cognitive skills, leading to positive development of language ability and educational success. 

Even though academic policies in French Polynesia started to open up to indigenous languages, the dimension of Tahitian in schools compared to French is still minimal. Therefore, it is necessary to expand on the further development of multilingual programs in schools and universities. 

Additionally, enhancing the dialogue and direct cooperation in originally French political responsibilities, such as education, will improve the legitimation of the system, standing against critical voices in the political sphere, such as nationalist parties. 

The decision-makers on education in French Polynesia set a new goal for evaluating multilingual education. To successfully attain this objective, the implementation of innovative policies to reinforce resolutions, coupled with financial support aimed at equipping teachers with the necessary competencies, is imperative.

Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash.

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