French Connection

Hawaii’s French Community on the Edge of the World

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, some 3,000 French people have made the American archipelago of Hawaii their home. They live in harmony with the ocean and mostly rely on tourism, a sector which is now making a comeback after the Covid-19 crisis and 18 months of scarcity.
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Waikiki Beach, the neighborhood of Honolulu where luxury hotels, tourist residences, and well-heeled shopping plazas are concentrated. © Maridav

White sandy beaches and a seabed teeming with life; volcanoes and tropical forests; waterfalls and deserts. Whether arriving from Europe or the United States, it is hard to find a place more exotic than Hawaii. This archipelago of some 130 islands, only seven of which are inhabited, has been the 50th American state since 1959 – and the only one not connected to the mainland, lying 2,500 miles off the coast of California. It is also one of the country’s most diverse; its 1.44 million people are from Polynesia, Asia, America, Europe, and, in rare cases, from France. “We estimate the French population of Hawaii to be around 3,000 people, 750 of which are officially registered with our service,” says Guillaume Maman, honorary consul of France for the archipelago since 2015.

He arrived on the island in 1987 to pursue his passion for windsurfing. “I came straight from Paris with 300 dollars in my pocket,” he says. “I thought I would stay for a three-week vacation, and I’m still here 35 years later. It was the best decision I’ve ever made!” After working for French companies such as Louis Vuitton, Guillaume Maman launched a Hawaii-made swimwear brand, Loco Boutique. He now works as a tourism consultant for the city hall in Honolulu, the state capital and its most populous urban center, while also representing France’s citizens and local authorities on the island.

It is hard to define a standard profile for the French people of Hawaii, as they live scattered across different islands and include entrepreneurs, academics, musicians, and retirees. Many of them work in tourism, which is by far the state’s main economic activity. Before the pandemic, the archipelago welcomed more than ten million visitors per year, including some 25,000 from France, and the sector employed more than 200,000 people. Alexandre Trancher is one of them. Heading up the kitchens at the gourmet restaurant La Mer, the chef used to work at the upscale eatery La Tour d’Argent in Paris, then at its branch in Tokyo, and had never set foot in Hawaii. Then, one day, he was recruited by the directors of the Halekulani, a five-star hotel on the legendary Waikiki Beach, the Honolulu neighborhood home to luxury hotels, well-heeled shopping plazas, and tourist residences. Ten years later, he is married and has a daughter, and has nothing but good things to say about his adoptive island. “Hawaii has given me so much that I can’t imagine going back to France other than on vacation,” he says. “People have problems here, just like everywhere, but they focus on solutions more than anything. Whatever happens, there’s always a solution to be found. And although we work long hours, we have the sea and the sun all year round!”

Easy Living

The option to combine a career and quality of life was also what convinced Chadia Chambers-Samadi, a professor of French and English at Hawaii Pacific University. “This is where I understood the true meaning of the word ‘lifestyle,’” says the Savoie native, who previously lived in New York and Illinois. “People take the time to enjoy life and organize their days around their pastimes, which is a luxury in the United States. Here, I go hiking, sailing, and even boating on Polynesian pirogues!” She arrived with her family five years ago, and cannot imagine leaving. “My son loves it here, and wants to stay in Hawaii for college. His whole life is here, including his friends and surfing classes.”

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Alexandre Trancher, chef of the fine-dining restaurant La Mer at the Halekulani Hotel, settled in Hawaii in 2012. © Halekulani Hotel
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Josette Marsh, the president of Alliance Française of Hawaii.
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Guillaume Maman, honorary consul of France in Hawaii since 2015. © Benoît Georges

At the polling station for the first round of the French presidential election (see below), we met Guillaume Dommergues, a data analyst for Bank of Hawaii, who arrived on the island of Oahu seven years ago after working in Shanghai. “My wife is from Hawaii, which is why we decided to live here,” he says. The father of two young children enjoys the atmosphere and the local mindset, “even if the cost of living is high, as most products are imported” – a common observation. “The French community is smaller and more spread out than in Shanghai. We met the French families we now spend time with by chance, while picking up the kids from school or on the family-friendly Sans Souci Beach in Waikiki.”

French Classes in the Sun

While the French community does not have an organization of its own, Francophile and Francophone Hawaiians do have a meeting point: the local branch of the Alliance Française, founded in the early 1960s. “We are a very small Alliance; there are barely 100 members, mostly locals with a passion for French language and culture,” says Josette Marsh, the president, who also directed the Federation of Alliances Françaises USA in the 2010s. “However, we are highly active! And because we don’t have a building and our members are on different islands, we have always been accustomed to working remotely. This enabled us to continue our activities during the pandemic.”

Originally from San Francisco, she has lived in Hawaii for 22 years and now runs the local branch of the Alliance Française remotely, either from California or Southern France. Aside from language classes and discussion groups in French via Zoom or on café terraces, the organization offers scholarships to help local students come to France. It also hosts events for the Beaujolais Nouveau wine season, la Chandeleur, and Bastille Day, which was celebrated last July after being put on hold for a year during the pandemic. “We brought some 80 people together in 2021, compared with around 120 before the pandemic,” says Josette Marsh.

Having been almost completely halted since spring 2020, the tourism sector only really started up against in late 2021. “Our restaurant was closed for 18 months,” says Alexandre Trancher. “Fortunately, the U.S. government did a lot to support jobs and tourism, which enabled us to get back to normal very quickly.” The main difference is that Asian tourists, particularly from Japan, who made up the majority of visitors, have not started traveling again. However, they have been replaced by a new clientele. “There are more and more Americans and Canadians coming to discover Hawaii, and they seem to love it,” says the chef at La Mer. “And when the Japanese come back, the excitement will be palpable!”

Voting Day in Honolulu

On Saturday, April 9, members of the French community in Hawaii gathered for the first round of the presidential election. A polling station – the only one on the archipelago – was set up in a convention center in Honolulu on the island of Oahu. The posters presenting the different candidates, the ballot box, and the conversations in French gave the impression of being in a village in France. Throughout the day, 115 people came to vote, mostly (74) for Emmanuel Macron. This was a low turnout, but nothing out of the ordinary, according to honorary consul Guillaume Maman. One reason is that many French citizens live far away; those on other islands generally do not make the trip to vote. For the second round, two weeks later, the showdown between Macron and Le Pen attracted 151 voters – a record – with 136 supporting the incumbent.

 

Article published in the June 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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