Story: French

Page 3. People and culture

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After Akaroa there were very few French immigrants. Some came in search of gold, and a few arrived in the 1870s as assisted immigrants. The number of French-born residents 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.

Between 1949 and 2014, 1,619 French people were granted New Zealand citizenship – over 90% of these grants were made from the late 1970s.

Testing times

On occasion, tension has developed between France and New Zealand on the rugby field. 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. . Since 2000 the All Blacks and Les Tricolours have contested the Dave Gallaher Cup in their first match each calendar year.

In 2013 most people of French ethnicity lived in Auckland (43%), Wellington (14%) and Canterbury (10%). The largest occupational group were professionals.

Nuclear testing

During French nuclear tests at Moruroa (Mururoa) 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 when it docked in Auckland in 1985, killing one crew member. French people living in New Zealand were sometimes on the receiving end of hostile treatment and French products were seen as suspect – baguettes are said to have been temporarily renamed ‘Kiwi sticks’.

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, literary 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.

French writers down under

Since 2002 French writers have been hosted at Wellington’s historic Randell Cottage for the first six months of each year. New Zealand writers have their turn in the final six months. The French writers are chosen by the French government and the New Zealand-France Friendship Fund, a government-sponsored entity.

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. In the 21st century bakeries, cafes and restaurants run by migrants were among the most obvious manifestations of French culture in New Zealand. In 2013 hospitality was one of the most common industries French residents worked in.

French immigrants did not build up a significant community, though they have formed cultural groups. The Cercle Français, established in 1908, was renamed the Alliance Française in 1984. In 2015 there were 10 branches, seven of which offered French language classes. Alliance Française put on an annual film festival and branches organised concerts and exhibitions and ran book clubs. Other groups included the Waiheke Island French Club and Frencheez Association and the French Association of Hawke’s Bay. In 1994 descendants of Akaroa settler Joseph Libeau established the Libeau Descendants Society. That same year the Frenz School organisation was founded to promote bilingual education in New Zealand. Two Auckland schools – Richmond Road and Birkdale North – have bilingual classes run under this scheme.

How to cite this page:

Tessa Copland, 'French - People and culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Tessa Copland, published 8 Feb 2005, reviewed & revised 1 Feb 2016