Magazine article New Internationalist

Forgotten Empire: The Sun May Eventually Set upon the Relics of the French Empire

Magazine article New Internationalist

Forgotten Empire: The Sun May Eventually Set upon the Relics of the French Empire

Article excerpt

SOME empires never die, they just get forgotten. So it is with the numerous small -- and some not so small -- French territoires and departements dotted across the world where the tricolour still proudly ripples. From French Guyana to Reunion, from New Caledonia to Tahiti, the colonial era has yet to draw to a close. And, if France has anything to do with it, it never will.

There is an explanation that's popular with the French government. It runs something like this: Britain bled its colonies dry but France was a nurturing mother. No surprise then that whilst Britain's enfeebled victims desperately strove for freedom, France's plump children desired only to remain forever nestled at her milky bosom.

It is a convenient myth for late twentieth - century imperialists but it's hardly a convincing one. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the South Pacific. In the mid - 1950s France had the most progressive policy of any of the powers operating in the region. Back then New Caledonia and French Polynesia were largely self - governing. But with the loss of Algeria Paris was forced to scour the planet for somewhere new to test its atomic bombs. The lucky winner was French Polynesia. The devastation the tests have caused to the cultural and ecological fabric -- not to mention the health -- of the region eventually provoked an international outcry, led by New Zealand, and prized a temporary moratorium on testing from the Mitterand Government.

However, France's Pacific colonies have other uses. Ron Crocombe, Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, points out that New Caledonia possesses one of the world's largest nickel deposits. By imposing a 200 - mile Exclusive Economic Zone around its territories France has 'control of more water than any other nation on earth'. As for the claim that France's colonial rule is justified by the lack of support for local independence movements, says Crocombe, 'If the other colonial powers had followed this approach there would not be a single independent country in the Pacific today'.

The indigenous peoples of France's Pacific possessions seem unwilling, however, to be colonial subjects forever. The Kanak independence movement in New Caledonia (FLNKS) is at present trying to broaden its support - base beyond the Kanaks, who now make up only 42 per cent of the island's population. Their persistence forced theFrench government into promising a referendum on sovereignty for 1998. …

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