The government of France announced last week that by 2015 its military presence in Tahiti will be cut in half, from about 1770 people to 850. The personnel will be withdrawn from a marine infantry regiment based in Arue and Taravao and from an air force facility known as Base Aérienne 190, located near the Tahiti-Faa’a International Airport.

The cuts are part of a much larger overhaul of all French military forces, announced by Prime Minister François Fillon and the minister of defense, Hervé Morin. The government White Paper announcing the changes indicated that over 50,000 positions would be cut, primarily through closing military bases.

The French strategy will be to concentrate their overseas forces onto regional poles: French Guyana, with its space launch facilities, for the Caribbean and Atlantic region; La Réunion for the Indian Ocean; and New Caledonia for the Pacific region. As Tahiti is deemphasized, New Caledonia will become the platform for French demonstrations of military power in the entire Pacific area. From their base in New Caledonia, the French will continue to develop, with the Australian and New Zealand militaries, coordinated approaches to disaster relief, maritime surveillance, and international interventions in cases of civil unrest.

The announcement last week prompted some concerns in French Polynesia about the availability of French air support for emergency medical evacuations and rescue operations. Over 26,000 people were transported to hospitals across the islands last year, 20,000 of whom were taken directly into Papeete.

This news may begin to close the history of French military presence in Tahiti, which has not always been benign. In the early 1960s, France established the Centre d’Expérimentation du Pacifique (CEP) in French Polynesia, a facility charged with developing the French nuclear bomb testing program. According to Lockwood (1993), the bomb testing produced an economic boom on the islands. Along with their bomb testing, France provided ample funding for the Tahitians, which fostered a welfare state that brought unprecedented prosperity.

However, the testing also prompted protests by Tahitians, who were opposed to the program for a variety of reasons. Other South Pacific nations joined the outcry against the presence of nuclear weapons in the Pacific region. Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand lodged a protest at the World Court in May 1973, and the July 1985 sinking in the Auckland Harbor of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which had been sent to the Pacific to protest the French bomb testing, caused protests worldwide(1). Thirty years after the testing had begun, a test of a nuclear bomb in September 1995 provoked massive riots in Tahiti. Rioters gutted shops, government offices, and the international airport in a strong show of anti-French feeling.

It is possible that the closing of military facilities in Tahiti will help foster a more peaceful society there. The scholarly basis for claims that the people of Tahiti have a “peaceful society” is Robert I. Levy’s path-breaking book (1973) on the rural Tahitians and their strategies for building a culture of nonviolence. But much has changed in the islands since Levy studied them in the 1960s, particularly the movements of rural people into more urban environments where they can take better advantage of jobs and prosperity. The potential role that the military bases might play in harming the peacefulness and developing a climate of opinion in the urban areas of French Polynesia that is more tolerant of violence is not clear, however.

Unfortunately, much of the literature on the effects of military bases on civilian populations focuses on U.S. base relations with surrounding peoples. For instance, an article in 2006 by Cooley and Marten(2) discusses the massive protests on Okinawa after the brutal gang rape of a 12-year old girl by three U.S. servicemen in 1995. Despite the initial popular outrage, the Okinawan people gradually toned down their vociferous opposition to the presence of the U.S. military, primarily due to the economic payoffs and the financial incentives from the U.S. and Japanese governments. Similar literature has discussed U.S. bases in the Philippines, Guam, Panama and elsewhere.

Other countries than the U.S. also report community violence developing as a result of the presence of military bases. Madelaine Adelman’s 2003 article on the militarization of Israel’s society is part of a large body of literature on the ways women and girls are affected by armies and wars(3). She argues that a military culture—social norms that support masculinity, forcefulness, and violence—fosters rapes and other forms of violence against women.

Adelman indicates that while a lot of research has dealt with violence against women on military bases themselves, not as much has been done with the ways military facilities may promote violence beyond the perimeter fences. She writes that there needs to be “a broader analysis of domestic violence within militarized societies and the resultant militarization of domestic violence discourse (p.1120).”

Additional examples of comparable literature on military forces and gender violence may be found in Lorentzen and Turpin (1998)(4). This literature can only provide hints about how reductions by the French military forces may affect social conditions in French Polynesia, but it is reasonable to hope that in time the Tahitian people will benefit from the base closings.

(1) Suter, Keith. 1995. “ Paradise Lost.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 51(5), September/October 1995: 13-14.

(2) Cooley, Alexander and Kimberly Marten 2006. “Base Motives: The Political Economy of Okinawa’s Antimilitarism.” Armed Forces & Society 32 (4): 566-583.

(3) Adelman, Madelaine. 2003. “The Military, Militarism, and the Militarization of Domestic Violence.” Violence Against Women 9(9): 1118-1152.

(4) Lorentzen, Lois Ann and Jennifer Turpin. 1998. The Women and War Reader. New York: New York University Press.