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Consolidating existing ties: France and the South Pacific in the 1990s.

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.

French nuclear testing has not necessarily alienated South Pacific nations to the extent of crippling wider French relations in the region. New Zealand and Australia, for example, have been careful not to antagonise Paris too greatly for fear of trade reprisals; specifically, the opposition of access for their meat and dairy products to the EC. Trade considerations weighed heavily on the New Zealand Labour Government's acceptance in 1986 of the release of the French agents Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur from New Zealand prisons to internment on Hao Atoll in French Polynesia. Their repatriation undermined Prime Minister David Lange's repeated claims in 1985 that their release was not open to negotiation and that New Zealand justice would take its course, free of political interference. Financial considerations have limited Canberra's actions against French nuclear testing. In June 1983 Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced the suspension of Australian uranium shipments to France, in order to signal the Labor Government's dislike of French nuclear testing. By August 1986, that government had announced the end of the uranium embargo and its intention to resell to France stocks it had purchased from Australian companies affected by the ban. Paul Keating, then Treasurer, declared that this measure was motivated by the need to fill the Government's budget deficit. Australia recommenced the supply of uranium to France at the same time as continuing to issue its regular protests about French nuclear testing.

Indications of a detente between France and the South Pacific since the suspension of French nuclear tests in April 1992 are not difficult to find, but substantial signs existed before that date that Paris was not irreconcilably outcast from the region because of its test programme. The above mentioned surveillance involving France, the Cook Islands and New Zealand provides evidence of ties which dispel the image of France as a South Pacific military power estranged from the region. Vanuatu and Fiji were also the grateful beneficiaries of French naval expertise before the test suspension. Since June 1990, French Navy jets have patrolled Fijian waters. Vanuatu arranged for a French patrol in February 1992. In both cases, these operations are conducted in conjunction with surveillance assistance from the RAAF and/or the RNZAF. This military co-operation is an extension of links provided by regular French warship calls to island states throughout the region during the 1980s and before. Only rarely have these visits been disrupted by island government opposition to nuclear testing, as occurred in February 1986, when Tuvalu refused entry to a French warship.

South Pacific nations have not been uniformly vigorous in expressing regional anti-nuclear sentiment. Tonga, ruled by a conservative monarchy, has been a reluctant subscriber to regional anti-nuclear policy. Tonga refused to sign the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty in August 1985, asserting that it could disrupt US nuclear defence, and has shown a deferent attitude to French nuclear testing. The Tongan monarch, King Tupou IV held that, although the region might be worried about safety considerations, France was justified in maintaining its nuclear programme. In July 1987, King Tupou IV and Prime Minister Pupuke Robati of the Cook Islands visited the test site of Moruroa, and returned stating that they were satisfied with safety measures there. During the 1980s and into the 1990s Cook Islands prime ministers have tended to be less enthusiastic than other Forum leaders about criticising French tests. In March 1992, a month before the announcement of the French test suspension, Prime Minister Geoffrey Henry described anti-nuclear protests as 'silly, a waste of time and energy'. It is not merely coincidental that the Cooks and Tonga have endeavoured since the early 1980s to improve their French cultural, commercial and aid links. Outspoken statements against testing might be ill-considered by officials in Paris and Papeete considering loans and other forms of development assistance.

France has no need to create a fresh set of relationships with the South Pacific in the 1990s, given that the set it already possesses was progressing well before its test suspension. During that time, none of the members of the South Pacific Forum, a grouping of 15 independent and self-governing states in the region, allowed opposition to nuclear testing to develop to the extent of permanently disconnecting relations with Paris. Rather than providing a presumed starting point, the suspension of testing in French Polynesia allowed France the opportunity to improve its already well-established network of links with states in the region. To the contrary of becoming isolated from the South Pacific during the 1980s because of its nuclear testing, France expanded its diplomatic network in the region. In 1980, resident ambassadors were posted for the first time to Papua New Guinea (PNG), Fiji and to the newly-independent state of Vanuatu (formerly the Franco-British Condominium of the New Hebrides).

The Port Moresby embassy was periodically the scene of anti-nuclear and anti-colonial protests. Various PNG governments expressed their rejection of nuclear testing, and of policy conduct in New Caledonia, via the embassy. The post survived these minor tribulations, only to be closed in 1991 as a result of austerity measures at the Quai d'Orsay. Nonetheless PNG subsequently showed the positive regard it held for growing trade and aid links with France. In March 1992 the Foreign Affairs Minister, Sir Michael Somare, announced the establishment of an embassy in Paris.

The French embassy in Fiji has been a centre for expanding regional links with France. During the 1980s, the French ambassador in Suva received accreditation to Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru and initiated French aid programmes in those islands. In March 1990, the embassy set up a trade commission to oversee the expansion of activity between island states and the French Pacific territories. France redistributed its regional aid to Fiji's benefit. Whereas in 1980 Vanuatu had been the sole major recipient of French foreign aid in the South Pacific, by July 1991, Fiji was receiving around one third of this aid, according to Jacques Le Blanc, the French Permanent Secretary to the South Pacific.

During the two coups d'etat by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987, France created substantial goodwill in Suva when, unlike New Zealand and Australia, it maintained relations with the nascent Fijian Republic. That year, Australia and New Zealand suspended their aid for several months, in protest against the ousting of the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra, and the over-turning of links with the Commonwealth when Rabuka declared a Republic in September 1997. While this aid was suspended, in October 1987 two French patrol boats made port calls to Suva and carried out manoeuvres with a Fijian naval vessel. In January 1988, France announced an aid package to Fiji that included 53 Renault trucks and an Ecureuil helicopter which were put into service with the Fijian army. While Australian and New Zealand civil aid was restarted from 1988, these countries' military co-operation with Fiji remained suspended until 1992, when full relations were restored under the assumption that Fiji was moving toward democratisation. Franco-Fijian military co-operation has not been adversely affected by this thaw in New Zealand and Australian relations with Suva. In March 1993, France and Fiji agreed to commence military exchanges. In May, a platoon of French soldiers was sent for exercises in Fiji, at the same time as a Fijian platoon exercised in New Caledonia. Improved relations between Paris and Suva from 1987 developed alongside repeated declarations by the Fijian Republic of dissatisfaction with French testing until April 1992, and statements of support for New Caledonian independence. As was the case with New Zealand, Australia, PNG, the Cook Islands and Tonga, nuclear and decolonisation matters have not been allowed to seriously jeopardise relations with Paris. In June 1993, Dominique Perben, the French Minister of Overseas Departments and Territories, visited Suva. He was greeted by Prime Minister Rabuka, who praised France for the substantial assistance and co-operation that had developed with Fiji since the 1980s.

French ambassadors in Port Vila during the 1980s faced persistent local Francophobia resulting from the troubled decolonisation of the New Hebrides. Prime Minister Walter Lini's predominantly Anglophone Vanuaaku Pati administrations were the source of some of the most outspoken regional critiques of French South Pacific policy. Not only did Lini advocate a nuclear-free Pacific before the New Zealand Labour Government did from 1984, he also supported the FLNKS. Lini was instrumental in mobilising the Forum on the issue of New Caledonian self-determination. In August 1986, the Forum decided to take New Caledonia's case to the UN. By December 1986 its members' lobbying in New York had resulted in a UNGA resolution which affirmed New Caledonia's right to self-determination and declared that France was obliged to transmit information about the territory's political situation to UN agencies.

In February 1981 and in October 1987, Vanuatu expelled the French ambassador in Port Vila, alleging French interference in local politics. But such reactions represent just one aspect of the jealous guardianship of Vanuatu's non-aligned stance from what was perceived as foreign neo-colonialist influence, whether it be French, US, or Australian. Consequently France has not been the sole nation subjected to Vanuatuan anti-colonialist declarations, either during or since the 1980s. In May 1987, after negative comments in Canberra over proposed representation by Libya in Port Vila, Vanuatu announced a ban on visits by Australian military aircraft and ships. The controversy subsided some days later when Lini decided against forming links with Ghadaffi. Vociferous opposition to perceived neo-colonialism has remained an aspect of Vanuatuan foreign policy beyond the end of Lini's period as Prime Minister. In July 1992, the Australian High Commissioner in Port Vila was expelled because of allegations of interference in local politics, although this time the expulsion was ordered by Prime Minister Maxime Carlot's predominantly Moderate Francophone coalition government, which had been appointed in December 1991.

The vigorous expression in Port Vila of policy hostile to France has been restrained to some extent by Vanuatu's dependence on French aid. Although discord existed between Paris and Port Vila over nuclear issues and the question of New Caledonian decolonisation, Vanuatu never went so far as to cut off relations with France. The threat of withdrawing 200 French aid workers from the islands was sufficient to moderate policy conduct in Port Vila in 1981. After the second expulsion, in 1987 Paris reduced its embassy staff in Port Vila to two and reduced aid. This reaction prompted calls in 1988 from President Ati George Sokomanu for Lini and his colleagues to repair relations with Paris for the good of the economy. During the rest of the 1980s and up until Carlot's appointment in December 1991, VP leaders worked to improve relations with France.

In addition to wanting to restore French aid vital to national economic development, for Vanuatu the major catalyst for reconciliation with France was not the suspension of French testing in 1992, but the calming of political tensions in New Caledonia four years before. In June 1988, the newly-appointed French Socialist Government of Michel Rocard signed an agreement with Melanesian nationalist and French loyalist leaders from New Caledonia. The Matignon Accords established a ten-year development plan for the territory, to be concluded with a self-determination referendum in 1998. With the relaxation of differences over New Caledonia thanks to the signature of the accords, Franco-Vanuatu relations have slowly improved since 1988. Cultural and educational exchanges, agricultural co-operation, and trade between Vanuatu and neighbouring New Caledonia have gradually been developed. In August 1992, Vanuatu established a consulate in New Caledonia to assist in the co-ordination of these links. The following month, a new French ambassador to Port Vila, Jean Mazeo, was appointed. He was the first to hold the post since the expulsion of his predecessor, Henri Crepin-leblond, almost five years before. France's sometimes tempestuous relations with Vanuatu appear to have reached a period of calm in the 1990s.

Arbitration of political tensions in New Caledonia contributed to a wider detente in French relations with the South Pacific Forum that the test suspension consolidated. While reiterating its hope of seeing New Caledonia accede to independence, at its annual meetings since 1988 the Forum has expressed general satisfaction with the implementation of the Matignon Accords. Prior to the French test suspension, improved links between Forum members generally and New Caledonia were already well under way. Since 1988, New Caledonian delegations have made tours of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji to explore or expand contacts in the fields of trade, culture, agriculture, education and land reform. Representatives from the aforementioned South Pacific states made reciprocal trips to New Caledonia in the same period. Similar exchanges have been taking place between French Polynesia and its island neighbours since the early 1980s. The Cook Islands, for example, benefited from the opening of markets for their produce in French Polynesia. Tn October 1991 the Cooks and France signed a friendship treaty, an undertaking to continue French cultural, technical and financial assistance.

The declaration by President Mitterrand on 4 July 1993 of an extension to the test suspension has fuelled regional hopes that testing in French Polynesia might be permanently abandoned. This hope has yet to be confirmed. President Clinton's recent ban on nuclear testing in the US will also add to the pressure. If events in the 1980s offer any indication, a recommencement of testing would be greeted by paper protests to Paris from the Forum. So too would declining stability in New Caledonia should the projected self-determination referendum fail to satisfactorily resolve the territory's future. Should either or both of these scenarios come to pass and France once more found itself the subject of regional protests, it is nevertheless unlikely that they would lead to French alienation in the region. French representation in the South Pacific has endured adverse Forum reactions before, whether caused by the decolonisation of the New Hebrides, 25 years of nuclear testing in French Polynesia, the Rainbow Warrior bombing, or the treatment of FLNKS demands in New Caledonia. The more beneficial aspects of France's regional presence in terms of co-operation, aid and trade, tend to receive less attention, but represent the reason why France has been able to expand its regional ties in the face of anti-nuclear and anti-colonialist declarations from South Pacific states.
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Author:McCallum, Wayne
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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