Consolidating Existing Ties: France and the South Pacific in the 1990s

By McCallum, Wayne | Contemporary Review, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Consolidating Existing Ties: France and the South Pacific in the 1990s


McCallum, Wayne, Contemporary Review


On 11 May 1993 readers of The New Zealand Herald encountered a large picture on page one depicting a French sailor hoisting a tricolour, with Auckland harbour as backdrop. The event was the arrival of the Jacques Cartier, paying the first visit to New Zealand by a French naval vessel since before the French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland's port in July 1985. The port call was hailed in the national media, and by the National Government, as indicative of the extent to which Franco-New Zealand relations had improved since the days of l'affaire Greenpeace.

Although given great prominence, the visit by the Jacques Cartier was by no means the first example of the improvement since 1985 of contacts between the two countries. In April 1991, Prime Minister Michel Rocard made the first visit by a French head of government to New Zealand. The trip, which included an apology for the Rainbow Warrior incident, was considered in Wellington and Paris to be a major step forward in bipartite relations. Franco-New Zealand military co-operation in the Cook Islands since 1990 has not received as much prominence, despite constituting a major development. The Cook Islands are an autonomous state with close ties to New Zealand. In September 1990, French Navy jets began regular surveillance sweeps over the Cooks' waters, a responsibility which had formerly rested solely with the RNZAF. This French military assistance was invaluable to the Cooks, as its government had but one patrol boat with which to police about two million square kilometres. New Zealand assented to this French military presence as a useful supplement to its own surveillance, and in February 1991 participated in a joint patrol with France and the Cooks.

Such French entente cordiale in the South Pacific has tended to be obscured by media attention focusing on diplomatic differences with regional states over nuclear testing in French Polynesia. Much prominence has been given to discord between France and South Pacific states over these tests. A widespread perception, expressed by Keith Suter in 'French Testing in the South Pacific' (Contemporary Review, September 1992), is that disharmony over nuclear testing has represented an unassailable barrier to the development of close French relations with the region: |France has been a military power in the South Pacific, but not a South Pacific nation. Its nuclear testing has alienated too many nations for it to develop close ties. If the testing were to stop permanently and France were to retain its colonies, it has an opportunity to develop closer ties with the surrounding nations. It could use its foreign aid, education and cultural programmes to create a fresh set of relationships'. This article questions the validity of these assertions. It will be demonstrated that nuclear testing has not been the overriding factor in French relations with the South Pacific, and that testing has not been as disruptive to those relations as might be imagined.

France cannot, for geographic reasons alone, strictly be a South Pacific nation. Yet France possesses, and aims to maintain, a South Pacific presence. There is no indication that Paris will shortly relinquish its three Pacific territories. No majority demand exists for decolonisation from the inhabitants of either French Polynesia or Wallis and Futuna. In New Caledonia, the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) advocates independence, but this coalition does not enjoy the support of an absolute majority of the territorial electorate. It requires such backing to gain independence via a self-determination referendum administered according to the dictates of French constitutional law. Paris is content to continue its financial commitment to its overseas possessions to maintain a global strategic presence. This broad goal predates the commencement of nuclear testing in French Polynesia, and will persist in the eventuality of testing there being abandoned. …

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