Story: French

Page 3 – People and culture


After Akaroa there were very few French immigrants. Some came in search of gold, and a few arrived in the 1870s as assisted immigrants. Numbers peaked at 848 in 1881, and did not increase for almost 100 years.

Between 1991 and 2013 the number of French-born residents more than quadrupled, from 858 to 3,762. The reciprocal extended-stay visas offered from 1999 brought more young travellers, who enjoyed staying in an inexpensive country. There were increasing numbers of students seeking a degree from an English-speaking university. Some married New Zealanders and stayed.

Testing times

On occasion, tension has developed between France and New Zealand over nuclear tests and rugby tests.

During French nuclear tests at Moruroa Atoll in the 1970s a New Zealand frigate was sent into the Pacific as a silent witness. Animosity intensified when French agents sank the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior in 1985. However, diplomatic ties were subsequently renewed.

There have been many fiercely competitive rugby tests between the two nations. The French first toured in 1961, and were beaten. But they won a resounding victory in the 1999 Rugby World Cup semi-finals.

In the early 2000s most French-born lived in Auckland and Wellington, and nearly half had dual citizenship. The largest occupational group were professionals.

French culture

The small number of French immigrants bears no relation to the immense impact of French culture. Wine and other imports were recorded in 1892, and from the earliest days French was taught in schools. There is a strong history of cultural, scientific and academic exchange between the two nations.

With the post-war popularity of coffee bars and licensed restaurants came an appreciation of French cuisine, including wine, bread and cheeses. Trade and tourism increased the demand for cars, perfume, cinema, fashion and kitchenware.

After the Second World War many French wool firms opened branches in Wellington and Christchurch, sending out buyers and their families. They were active in the cultural life of the 1950s and again in the 1970s.

French immigrants did not build up a significant community, although there are informal groups. The Cercle Français, established in 1908, was renamed the Alliance Française in 1984. In 2003 there were 11 branches with about 2,500 members. The clubs offer regular film festivals, concerts, exhibitions and language classes.

How to cite this page:

Tessa Copland. 'French - People and culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 9-Dec-14