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by  Tessa Copland

Abel Tasman’s voyage in 1642 aroused French interest in the South Seas, and by the 18th century French explorers were eager to seek out scientific knowledge and trading opportunities in New Zealand.

Explorers and missionaries


The first French arrival was Captain Jean François Marie de Surville, who brought the St Jean Baptiste on a trading and exploratory expedition in 1769. His first sighting of New Zealand was of the Hokianga; from there he sailed around North Cape to Doubtless Bay. Initially he and his crew got on well with Māori in the area, but he eventually left under a shadow of misunderstanding. Wrongly believing Ngāti Kahu had stolen the ship’s boat, he burned houses and captured a chief, Ranginui. When de Surville sailed for Peru, he took Ranginui with him. Although the chief was treated well, he soon died of scurvy.

Ngāti Wiwi

Māori are also believed to have referred to early French explorers as ‘Ngati Wiwi’, after hearing them saying ‘oui oui’ (‘yes’, denoting agreement).  A 2004 symposium on the Pompallier mission in Russell was called ‘The French place in the Bay of Islands: Te Urunga Mai o te Iwi Wiwi’ (as was a subsequent book) in recognition of this.

In May 1772 Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne sailed the Mascarin into the Bay of Islands. His party made scientific observations, and traded and socialised with Māori. A few weeks later, however, du Fresne and 24 others were murdered. Hundreds of Māori were killed in retaliation. There are several theories to explain what the French did to anger Māori. They are known to have fished in sacred waters, thereby violating tapu, and were unaware of how their actions affected local politics and tribal rivalries. Whatever the real reason, Māori distrust of ‘the tribe of Marion’ remained for years.

The first truly scientific expedition was led by Louis Isidore Duperrey on the Coquille, which reached the Bay of Islands in April 1824. Duperrey surveyed the bay, met the Māori chief Hongi Hika, and later published his observations.

Also on board was Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville, who led a second expedition which reached New Zealand in 1827. From the west coast of the South Island he sailed towards Cook Strait, naming French Pass, D’Urville Island and Croisilles Harbour. He visited for a third time in 1840. Like other French explorers, Dumont d’Urville made a major contribution to the scientific knowledge of New Zealand. Included in these exploratory missions were French artists, whose works form a rich visual record of early nineteenth-century New Zealand.

French whalers appeared in the 1830s, mostly working off Banks Peninsula and Otago until the 1840s. Some eventually settled.

Novel discoveries

The voyages of Tasman and others had inspired French writers from as early as 1681. Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas the elder and Jules Verne subsequently drew on accounts of New Zealand contact.

The explorer Dumont d’Urville wrote an unpublished novel about New Zealand that was found in manuscript form after his death in 1842. Les Zélandais: histoire australienne is based on his encounters with Māori in 1824. Set in Northland, it relates the fortunes of the people of  Tiami [Taiāmai] and their chief. Dumont d’Urville depicts them sympathetically, as their lives are about to be changed dramatically by the arrival of Europeans.


The French had a major influence on the Catholic Church in New Zealand. The Pacific had been allocated by the Pope to French missionaries in 1829, and in 1835 the western portion including New Zealand was made a parish. Bishop Jean Baptiste François Pompallier was sent out to head the mission, and arrived in the Hokianga in 1838. The first bishop of any denomination in New Zealand, he became the leading light of the Catholic Church for the next 30 years.

Pompallier and his missionaries from the order of the Society of Mary (Marists) faced poverty, hardship, and opposition from Protestant missionaries and Māori who distrusted the French. But they quickly learned English and Māori, and in 10 years 5,000 people were baptised. Mission stations were established from north Auckland to Akaroa.

For Māori, becoming Catholic was a gesture of dissatisfaction with Protestant missionaries and the British Crown. But Catholicism did not remain associated with protest for long. During the New Zealand Wars in the 1860s, Pompallier abandoned the Māori mission and condemned the indigenous Pai Mārire religious movement. The new focus of the Catholic Church was to minister to the country’s Europeans.

The gold rushes of the 1860s took the priests to Southland, to work with the mining communities. French Marists were a significant part of the clergy in Wellington and Canterbury until around 1885, and remained until the 1930s. They made a substantial contribution to Catholic education.

The missionaries, and later the Sisters of Mercy, accomplished ground-breaking welfare work with Māori and Pākehā. As well as churches and chapels, they built schools, hospitals and orphanages. The most well-known missionary was Suzanne Aubert, who arrived in 1860 and founded the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion.

Some Catholic orders maintained contact with France in the 2010s.

French settlements

Akaroa settlement

France’s true intentions for the South Island are a matter of contention, but it is clear that French interest speeded up Britain’s decision to annex New Zealand.

In 1838 Jean François Langlois, commander of the whaling ship Cachalot, embarked on a grandiose scheme for a French colony at Akaroa. After a dubious land purchase from Māori he established the Nanto-Bordelaise Company in France in 1839 to carry out the project. King Louis-Philippe agreed to provide assistance.

Paradise lost

Still smarting from the missed opportunity to colonise Akaroa, the region’s French governor wistfully observed its advantages:

‘The wheat seems better than in France. All the vegetables are growing well. It is truly regrettable that we arrived here after the British.’ 1

The French representative for the settlement, Captain Charles François Lavaud, sailed for New Zealand in February 1840. A month later, the Comte de Paris set off for Akaroa carrying 59 emigrants.

Meanwhile, the British government had bowed to pressure to colonise the country and sent out William Hobson in 1839. He signed the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840, and claimed sovereignty over the South Island on 21 May.

When Lavaud reached the Bay of Islands in July, he learned that New Zealand had already become British. Hobson was friendly, but sent the Britomart to observe the French in Akaroa. Lavaud accepted that France could not create a colony without causing hostility. When the Comte de Paris arrived in August, the Union Jack was flying over Akaroa.


Geoff Cush’s 2002 novel Son of France imagines New Zealand as it might have been had France colonised New Zealand instead of Britain. Christchurch is re-cast as Sainte-Chapelle, set in the Normandy Plain. The nation’s capital is New Lyon (Auckland), while Wellington is the only part of the country in British hands. The middle of the North Island is National Park, where Māori sovereignty prevails. The book was translated into French as Graine de France.

Akaroa settlers

The French colonists flourished briefly, enjoying trade with the whaling ships. In 1843 they numbered 69 (including eight Germans), intermingling with 86 British as well as Māori. At first life was tough, but they replaced the original tents with houses, and began to grow fruit and vegetables. The French navy built roads, bridges and wharves, and French priests taught the children. Shops, hotels, bakeries, and cafés opened. The British government eventually granted the settlers official ownership of land. Until 1845 Lavaud and his successor administered French law within the settlement. By the mid-1840s there was a decline in whaling, and the French navy left in 1846. Most settlers stayed and became naturalised, but numbers were always small. Today, some architecture, the cemetery, and names such as Rue Balguerie and Rue Benoit, French Farm and Duvauchelle, along with thousands of descendants, are testament to the original colonists.

Other settlements

There were no other French settlements on the scale of Akaroa, but French people are known to have settled in other parts of the country. The eccentric Charles Philippe Hippolyte de Thierry arrived in Hokianga in 1837 and unsuccessfully attempted to found a French colony with himself as sovereign. In the early 1840s sailors Emile Borell and Louis Bidois settled in Bay of Plenty and married Māori women. Many of their descendants still live in the region.

    • Quoted in Peter Tremewan, ed., French Akaroa: an attempt to colonise southern New Zealand. Christchurch: University of Canterbury Press, 1990, p. 178. › Back

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. 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.

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in France.

  • 1858 census: 173
  • 1901 census: 609 (including French possessions)
  • 1951 census: 324
  • 1976 census: 666
  • 2001 census: 1,614
  • 2006 census: 2,475
  • 2013 census: 3,762

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • French: 3,819 (2006); 4,593 (2013)

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Tessa Copland, 'French', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 September 2023)

He kōrero nā Tessa Copland, i tāngia i te 8 Feb 2005, reviewed & revised 1 Feb 2016