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France's mixed messages for the Pacific

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28 January 2010 10:23

Recent rare comments (full text here) by President Nicolas Sarkozy on his Government's approach to France's overseas entities raise questions about France's sincerity in implementing a genuine choice for independence in New Caledonia, and its plans for French Polynesia and even tiny Wallis and Futuna. 

Sarkozy also hinted at a diminution in France's largesse towards its overseas entities, including in the Pacific. Such trends could disturb the current comfort zone in our near neighborhood.

In his New Year message to Overseas France (the string of twelve French entities that stretch from Saint Pierre-et-Miquelon on the Atlantic, round through French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the Pacific, and across to Réunion in the Indian Ocean), Sarkozy revived De Gaulle's imperialist strategic vision of France. He said that thanks to them, France was 'France of the three oceans', and referred to their contribution to 'our influence, our grandeur and our power' (using Gaullist terms, 'rayonnement', 'grandeur' and 'puissance').

He promised that his Government would be open to support institutional evolutions so that each entity could find its 'balance' within France's constitution, which enabled a certain flexibility, but with 'one red line which I will never allow to be crossed – that of independence'. He also warned that he would be 'intransigent' on violence and public order.

He called for a new model of development, one less artificially dependent on the métropole. 'You must not be afraid of your neighbours', he said.

France's presence in the Pacific has been constructive and generally stabilising over the last 15 years, owing to France ceasing its nuclear tests and implementing democratic changes in its Pacific entities. Regional leaders have recognised this, welcoming the French entities as 'associate' members of the Pacific Island Forum. 

But there are cracks emerging. French Polynesia has been wracked with instability, largely because pro-French groups refuse to accept the extent of electoral support for the pro-independence leader Oscar Temaru. The entity is almost entirely dependent on France to pay for the artificially high economy created during the testing program. 

New Caledonia has also seen local divisions, with a weakening of pro-France representation in the local Congress by a new, more extreme independence party. France remains committed to funding the handover of important responsibilities and benefits under the 1998 Noumea Accord, but the handover schedule has slipped.

At the same time as he made his comments, Sarkozy announced further statutory reform in French Polynesia, to change electoral processes yet again. It will be important for stability that these changes do not have the same effect as other statutory changes in recent years, that have diluted the weight of votes for the pro-independence forces.

For New Caledonia, where up to three referenda on the future status and transfer of the five final 'sovereign' powers are to take place from 2014 to 2018, Sarkozy affirmed France's 'total loyalty' to all partners of the Accord, whether pro-France or pro-independence. At the same time, he said discussions must begin so that the results of the referenda foreshadowed by the Accord will be approved by a 'very large majority'. 

With the pro-France group currently  in the (recently reduced) majority, this supposes that talks will result in winning over many of those who currently support independence. Sarkozy's explicit ruling out of independence for France's overseas entities raises questions about the claimed impartiality of the French State as a signatory to the Accord.

Sarkozy also foreshadowed changes for Wallis and Futuna, the tiny archipelago which has been administered, unchallenged, under a 1960 statute right up to the present. He said he was prepared, from this year, to examine propositions for modernisation, but again, 'within the framework of the Republic'.

Canberra is comfortable with France's presence as a partner in the region, and will welcome the intentions for the French collectivities to become more engaged economically. But it should be wary of instabilities arising from any roll-back of democracy, such as by new statutes in French Polynesia or partisan implementation of the Noumea Accord processes; and of any consequent negative reactions by regional leaders, not to mention economic consequences for Australia should France resile from its economic commitments.

Photo by Flickr user gunthert, used under a Creative Commons license.

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