With global attention on Paris this week for the Global Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP), France has hosted another event on the eve of that meeting which has regional signfiicance. Convening the France-Oceanic Summit with Pacific Island leaders, French President Francois Hollande identified France as 'fully a country of the Pacific' through its territories there, and linked assistance with a call for full membership for its territories in the Pacific Island Forum.
After a hiatus of six years, the Hollande government re-convened the France-Oceanic Summit in Paris on 26 November. Initiated in 2003 by Chirac, the Summits were meant to take place alternately in Paris and the region, every three years. They were part of a number of initiatives by France to secure a regional role and acceptance in the wake of the controversies over nuclear testing and decolonisation issues of the 1980s and 90s. Momentum stalled in 2009, when Sarkozy did not attend the meeting in Noumea. Although Hollande met some Pacific leaders when he hosted a Climate Change meeting in Noumea in 2014, the 2015 meeting is the first France-Oceanic Summit since 2009.
The focus of the France-Oceanic Summits has been cooperation for sustainable development. So reconvening the Summit on the eve of the COP was logical, and in his opening speech, President Hollande emphasised the unique importance of climate change and biodiversity for the South Pacific region. The Summit issued a Declaration calling for urgent action to address cliimate change issues at the COP.
But Hollande’s speech is important for another reason.
It is a rare occasion when a French president has articulated for regional leaders in clear and unambiguous terms, that 'France is fully a country of the Pacific. Thanks to New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna, we share the life and future of the big Pacific family'.
After rehearsing a number of regional economic and environment challenges, Hollande said that France would play a role in addressing them, through the three French territories who would be France’s 'representatives’, engaged by the responsibilities France has delegated to them for certain aspects of foreign relations. He then put in a pitch for full membership of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) for New Caledonia and French Polynesia, and for associate status for Wallis and Futuna, promising renewed engagement by France through its Pacific Fund, which has been sorely depleted in recent years.
New Caledonia and French Polynesia are currently 'associate' PIF members, a status especially created for them by Pacific Island leaders in 2006, when both territories, then 'observers', began seeking full membership, supported by France. Wallis and Futuna is currently still an 'observer'. The 'observer' category for its territories has always sat oddly with France as it was designed for territories 'on a clear path to self-government or independence' (Palau 1999 PIF Communiqué). But whatever the nomenclature, Forum island leaders (as opposed to Australia, who supports full membership for the French territories) have to date been cautious in welcoming the French territories as full members until residual decolonisation questions have been resolved, wary of having three voices of France in their number.
In New Caledonia's case, under the 1988 and 1998 Matignon and Noumea Accords, a long-delayed independence referendum process must take place before 2018. French Polynesia has only recently, in 2013, been re-inscribed as a non-self governing territory with the UN Decolonisation Committee, at the behest of its independence leaders, a move proposed by three small island states, and accepted by consensus in the UN, but opposed by France.
By proclaiming itself as fully a country 'of the Pacific' rather than just 'in' it, through its territories, France is acknowledging that its own regional presence rests on its continued sovereign status in its territories. But this status is as yet to be fully resolved, in New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Whether Island leaders will change their position on PIF membership for the French territories in the light of France's promised assistance, remains to be seen.
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