Printer Friendly

David Lange's French connection--mais qui? Ken Ross discusses the Labour prime minister's contest with French President Mitterrand on a range of difficult issues.

Lange's exposure of French culpability in the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, his firm advocacy for the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia to become the independent Kanaky and his being at the forefront of international opposition to French nuclear testing at Moruroa together present a major portfolio of global diplomacy by a New Zealand prime minister. New Caledonia was Lange's principal 'captain's call' in his global diplomacy. The bombing of the Rainbow Warrior is the most fascinating chapter in Lange's global diplomacy--more so than the ANZUS/nuclear free New Zealand saga.


'Let's hear it for the French. Not only did the Rainbow Warrior sinking remind us how arrogantly larger powers may disregard the integrity of small states, it was also a below-the-belt lesson about the reality of international incidents; this one hit home out of the blue from an unanticipated quarter. Neither ANZUS nor strategies of forward defence were relevant.' (Pauline Swain, 1985) (1)

David Lange's Parisian entanglements prompted contemporary global leaders to nod that he was a serious player on the international landscape. It was a suite of three initiatives that had him (and New Zealand) on collision courses with French President Francois Mitterrand and his lieutenants. Lange's exposure of French culpability in the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, his firm advocacy for the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia to become the independent Kanaky and his being at the forefront of international opposition to French nuclear testing at Moruroa together present a major portfolio of global diplomacy by a New Zealand prime minister.

Lange's global diplomacy with Washington has been so well raked over that that literature fills a library shelf. But his Mitterrand global diplomacy lacks any substantial assessment.

Lange's was a high wire act, with no safety net, as he went head-to-head with Mitterrand. He never lost his footing. Twice, scorpion-like, Lange stung the president--when he showed Mitterrand's culpability for the Rainbow Warriors bombing and when his interventions secured New Caledonia's reinscription on the United Nations List of Non-Self-Governing Territories. Each is among the handful of most serious setbacks for Mitterrand during his fourteen years as president.

Lange and Mitterrand never met. Nor did Lange encounter any of Mitterrand's four prime ministers--Pierre Mauroy, Laurent Fabius, Jacques Chirac or Michel Rocard. Lange missed out completely on one of his own predecessor's most favoured locales --Parisian nightclubs. Muldoon was in Paris eight times during his prime ministership and met Mitterrand. Lange never got there. He met Claude Cheysson, the first of France's three foreign ministers during Lange's prime ministership, but only once, at the United Nations in New York in September 1984. Cheysson lost his job two months later--his two successors, Roland Dumas (1984-86, 1988-93) and Jean-Bernard Raimond (1986-88), steered clear of Lange.

Mind games

His sharp relationship with Mitterrand was extraordinary. Lange, who relied heavily on establishing personal rapport with other leaders, had to do mind games with Mitterrand. His early pitch that as fellow progressives they should have the same perspective was breathtaking in its gaucheness. This was over New Caledonia--Mitterrand as leader of the French Socialist Party in 1979 had signed off his party's support for the Kanak independentists. But, when president, he never delivered.

Lange foiled Mitterrand. His strength--his public wit--outpointed the Frenchman, whose tactic as a master of elusiveness and deviousness did not play well vis-a-vis the New Zealander. Nor, importantly, did it with other world leaders as they watched the pair jostle.

The outstanding portrait of Mitterrand came early in his presidency --Christine Nay's The Black and the Red: Francois Mitterrand The Story of an Ambition (1984, Eng trans 1987). She focused on 'what events had shaped Mitterrand before he, in turn, shaped events'.

My Mitterrand is drawn predominantly through the contemporary lens of the writings of British journalists who throughout his presidency camped outside the Elysee Palace crafting their prose--in particular the BBC's Philip Short, the Guardians Paul Webster, and Jonathan Fenby. Each has subsequently written a major book reflecting on his Mitterrand experience. Short packaged Mitterrand as 'intimidating ... subtle, stealthy, artful and determined'. (2) The quintessential one-liner summing up Mitterrand is that the phonetic translation of his name in Chinese is 'a perfectly clear enigma'. (3)

For Mitterrand, his French nationalism was foremost. He performed poorly as an international progressive. Lange learned that, finally. Norman Kirk could have warned Lange. Kirk saw first-hand how the French Socialists under Mitterrand's leadership mingled at the Socialist International--but at the most pertinent moment for Kirk, speaking out against nuclear testing, the French stood aside from the body's willingness to meet Kirk's push for condemnation of nuclear tests.

'Parisian' diaries

Much of what happened when French agents sank the Rainbow Warrior on 10 July 1985 is known. Michael King's The Death of the Rainbow Warrior is easily the most authoritative account from the New Zealand perspective of the bombing itself and the early aftermath--but King published on the first anniversary of the bombing and never returned to the subject. His book has short-comings, particularly his late addition (on page 188) of a 'second male and female couple' of agents.

Media reporting, both New Zealand and foreign, enables a good enough appreciation of the comings and goings between Wellington and Paris, sometimes via the United Nations (in New York), as the diplomacy of the aftermath played out during Lange's prime ministership. Sir Kenneth Keith has now given us his insights as a key participant. (4) But the fine detail of the diplomatic weaving and threading of the high politics of the affair remains locked away, seemingly for a long time yet. Thus, Lange's pivotal interventions are little known publicly.

By contrast, we can pry closely into Lange's New Caledonia initiative. We have a magnificent resource for the first four months, from when the South Pacific Forum concluded in late August 1984, which opens up a rare view of New Zealand's most talented diplomats at work. Four foreign ministry files, R20766230 to R20766233, at Archives New Zealand detail the progress until 31 December 1984 of the Forum Ministerial Group on New Caledonia. (Later files in this series will not be available until 2020.)

By the year's end Lange had made his mark with the initiative, which developed a life of its own as 1985 began. From then, he intervened just at critical moments. However, it is evident that things slowed down during 1985 as the succeeding file, R20766234, which is not publicly accessible, covers the whole of that year--a sharp contrast to the four substantial files needed for the final four months of 1984.

Captain's call

New Caledonia (5) was Lange's principal 'captain's call' in his global diplomacy. In this he was superbly backed by his senior foreign ministry officials--Merv Norrish, Tim Francis and Chris Beeby --as well as key working level ones, such as Dick Grant (the consul-general in Noumea), John McArthur (the ambassador in Paris) and Diane Wilderspin (in Wellington).

Lange had become absorbed in the cause of the Kanak independentists before he became prime minister on 26 July 1984. New Caledonia was the foremost topic for Lange on his first two overseas trips as prime minister--to a Commonwealth regional leaders (CHOGRM) meeting in Papua New Guinea on 8 August and then the annual South Pacific Forum on 27 and 28 August.

Lange's grasp of the New Caledonia topic is clear from the summary records of the two meetings' discussions. (The official records of both meetings are at Archives New Zealand. (6)) On each occasion Lange was to the fore in the discussion of New Caledonia, which was the lead topic at both meetings. The forum record of that discussion is 3300 words long and leaves no doubt of Lange's urgency. He emerges from the two meetings with a clear mandate (despite a couple of Bob Hawke hissy fits) to push the region's concern.

Ahead of the forum meeting, Lange had ensured that New Zealand took charge by circulating a discussion paper. The forum set up a ministerial action group. Lange got himself on the team and immediately took the lead. The forum wanted their team to go see for themselves what the conditions in New Caledonia were. The French said 'Non' to the group; but would allow individual foreign ministers to visit.

Lange had his next move in play immediately. A month on, he was in New York for the UN General Assembly to megaphone to the world leaders that 'it will be clear in many parts of the world that a new Government is at work in New Zealand, with a new spirit and a new approach to world affairs'. (7) He had already informed his Cabinet, after the forum meeting: 'The message I shall put across is that the Forum has now acknowledged that it has a major interest in securing a peaceful transfer to independence in New Caledonia. In the past it has barked only at the French: now we seek to keep both sides herded in the dialogue pen.' (8)

Added visit

In New York, Lange met Cheysson. Diplomatically, he told his French counterpart that he was going to add Noumea to this trip, so would arrive in ten day's time. Paris was back-footed. Lange was thorough in arranging, with their assistance, his visit on 6 October. He spent a day in non-stop talks. The next day he flew to Vanuatu to lunch with Prime Minister Walter Lini and his ministers to report on these talks. It was a manoeuvre which broke open the issue. The following day Lange informed his Cabinet of the progress. (9)

From then Lange did not let off the pace, continuing to nudge the forum, particularly as serious political disturbances erupted in New Caledonia in November 1984, continuing through 1985 and deepening when Jacques Chirac's conservatives won control of the National Assembly in France in March 1986 and formed a 'cohabitation' government. Mitterrand continued as president. The 1986 forum committed to 'battle' for the Kanak independentists, who wanted New Caledonia to be reinscribed on the United Nations List of Non-Self-Governing Territories--Paris having unilaterally taken it off the list in 1947. A battle royal developed at the General Assembly as the vote approached in December 1986. Paris was defeated heavily--89 to 24 (with 34 abstentions).

A year later the battle was as fierce. Paris managed to reduce support by twenty votes so only 69 countries voted for the continued reinscription, but the 'no' vote crept up by just three to 27. Abstentions jumped to 47 and there were other countries not willing to be present, even to record an abstention. (10)

The following year, 1988, when the Socialists had regained control of the government (and Mitterrand had defeated Chirac for the presidency), Paris accepted the status quo without a fight. Today, New Caledonia continues to be listed.

Lange's leadership is not forgotten in New Caledonia, France, and many other places, even if few New Zealanders have this awareness. New Caledonia's reinscription ranks as one of the worst defeats ever for France at the United Nations. Yet, at the time, it was barely known in New Zealand how engaged Lange was or how prominent New Zealand was in the forum effort--the first time the forum had put a regional issue on the world stage.

Fascinating chapter

The bombing of the Rainbow 'Warrior is the most fascinating chapter in Lange's global diplomacy--more so than the ANZUS/nuclear free New Zealand saga. This affair still lacks an accomplished story-teller of the political diplomacy dimension.

Lange's leadership of the New Zealand cause following the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior humiliated Mitterrand when his government was exposed as being culpable. Paris took a serious beating in the court of world opinion. It was New Zealand's efforts that turned around the Mitterrand government's initial 'non-ownership' of the bombing. Merv Norrish, one of Lange's key officials, has the perspective spot-on: 'New Zealand did well to catch two of the agents involved and to sheet home responsibility to the Government of France.' (11) And then to secure a fulsome apology, substantial compensation, avert trade repercussions, and garner access to the European Union of $200 million of additional agricultural exports was simply impressive.

New Zealand's police and diplomats deserve much kudos. Over and above them Lange's contribution was integral--his wit, already heard globally at the Oxford Union four months previously, came into play to shine Wellington's perspective so forcefully that the Mitterrand government was back-footed, prompting its defences to stumble. Lange's most effective foray was his quip to a BBC reporter on 27 August, just hours after the Tricot Report became public, declaring it 'too transparent to be even a whitewash'. That one-liner flashed around the world. Within an hour it was rattling through the corridors of power in Paris like a diplomatic Exocet missile. (12) Seemingly, Lange had lit the fuse prompting revelations that dramatically shredded the Mitterrand government's credibility--Le Monde's story on 17 September detailed for the first time a third team of agents, a trio that reportedly New Zealand police had not already conclusively fingered. Edwy Plenel's La troisieme Equipe: Souvenirs de laffaire Greenpeace (2015) has just now appeared--he was the Le Monde reporter who broke the story.

Everybody, including Lange's most stringent critic, Michael Bassett, praised his performance. There were only plaudits; not a brickbat was pitched up. There were some surprising silences in several Western capitals.

Lange stayed with the case, even after stepping down as prime minister. As attorney-general he led the New Zealand team for the arbitration in New York in October 1989. His colleagues were apprehensive, but he turned in a professional performance to New Zealand's credit.

Infamous U-turn

Lange was at the forefront of his government's determination to U-turn Muldoon's infamous U-turn, when one of his first acts as prime minister in December 1975 was to instruct the New Zealand permanent representative at the United Nations to disown the General Assembly resolution, which New Zealand had cosponsored with Fiji and Papua New Guinea, that promoted the South Pacific as a nuclear weapons free zone. The resolution had been adopted by the General Assembly as the Muldoon government was taking the oath of office at Government House.

Muldoon's eight years as prime minister had seen New Zealand, a once leading opponent of French nuclear testing, go quiet. Muldoon's credentials were thoroughly discredited when he was stood down as prime minister--most spectacularly his claim, which he repeated in his fourth memoir, Number 38 (1986), that President Mitterrand had assured him French nuclear testing would end in two years' time. Lange speedily ensured that the world knew Muldoon was history.

Lange's foreign ministry moved expeditiously. On 8 October 1984 it delivered him a substantial memorandum that canvassed the record of New Zealand's official protests and the current protest activity as Labour took office; it then set out for him 'what more, if anything, could be done by the Government to protest against continued French nuclear testing and bring it to an end'. (13)

Malcolm Templeton, in Standing Upright Here: New Zealand in the nuclear age 1945-1990 (2006), gives us a fine account of subsequent developments. Beyond New Zealand Lange was not impressed with the proposed nuclear free zone for the South Pacific that Bob Hawke was shepherding through the South Pacific Forum. Lange and Walter Lini tried to beef up the proposal, but most of the other forum leaders were disinclined to go that far. Lange still considered the Treaty of Rarotonga, which declared the South Pacific a nuclear weapons free zone, that the forum adopted in 1985 was worthwhile, and backed its passage and implementation. Lange envisaged that the treaty's 'zone will contribute a new and powerful means of exerting pressure on France to change a policy which has become intolerable to the whole region'. (14)

Lange's great success in establishing personal rapport with another world leader was Margaret Thatcher. Bob Hawke was his big failure. Mitterrand stands out as the masterful adversary, the one leader Lange had to rely wholly on his mind-games skills, garnered from his law days at the old Auckland Magistrates Court, to engage.


(1.) Pauline Swain, 'Who defends New Zealand?', NZ Listener, 16 Nov 1985, p.33.

(2.) Philip Short, Mitterrand: a Study in Ambiguity (London, 2013), p.x.

(3.) Wayne Northcutt, Mitterrand: A Political Biography (New York, 1992), p.2.

(4.) Kenneth Keith, 'The Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes: The Rainbow Warrior Affair--Experiences of a Small State', in Charles Chernor Jalloh and Olufemi Elias

(eds), Shielding Humanity: Essays in International Law in Honour of Judge Abdul G. Koroma (Leiden/Boston, 2015), pp.21-34.

(5.) See Ken Ross, Regional Security in the South Pacific: the Quarter-century 1970-95 (Canberra, 1993), pp.133-47; Helen Fraser, Your Flag's Blocking Our Sun (Sydney, 1990); and David Robie, Blood on their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific (Sydney, 1989), pp.82-141.

(6.) The Commonwealth Secretariat document is in R17586044. The Forum Secretariat document, 'The 15th South Pacific Forum: Summary Record', is in R17725398. Discussion on New Caledonia is paras 9 to 34, pp.4-18.

(7.) 'Memorandum for Cabinet from Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs reporting his visit to the United States, Britain, India, Singapore, New Caledonia and Vanuatu from 23 September to 7 October 1984', 8 Oct 1984, para 3. Copy is at Archives New Zealand, R20766232. The report was before Cabinet less than 24 hours after the prime minister returned to New Zealand. Merv Norrish and Michael Green had both travelled with Lange. Green was an extraordinarily talented wordsmith. An even more breath-taking account of the trip is on the same file. It is the 13-page record of Lange's meeting with Vanuatu Prime Minister Walter Lini. Lange's insights to Lini on Gromyko, the British Labour Party, Indira Gandhi and Lee Kuan Yew are riveting. Lange also tells Lini of Lee's exquisite put downs of Lange as being no Norman Kirk. The report opens up the portrait of the Lange his close staff dealt with everyday as his wit ran riot!

(8.) 'Memorandum for Cabinet from Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs reporting his visit to Tuvalu for the 1984 South Pacific Forum on 27-28 August 1984', 31 Aug 1984, p.2. The document is in R17728203.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) The fullest account of the episode is by Richard Woolcott, Australia's representative at the United Nations in New York, in his The Hot Seat: Reflections on Diplomacy from Stalins Death to the Bali Bombings (Sydney, 2003), pp.1968. Extraordinarily, he fails to mention New Zealand's engagement!

(11.) Merwyn Norrish, in Malcolm Templeton (ed), An eye, an ear and a voice: 50 years in New Zealand's external relations 1943-1993 (Wellington, 1993), p.143.

(12.) Michael Dobbs, 'French Secret Service Hit', Washington Post, 28 Aug 1985.

(13.) The memorandum is at Archives New Zealand, in R22499599.

(14.) New Zealand Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 9 Oct 1984, p.927.

Ken Ross was an analyst with the External Assessments Bureau, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet from 1976 until 2012. He has been a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London and the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Canberra. He is writing a book evaluating New Zealand prime ministers' engagement in global diplomacy since 1945.
COPYRIGHT 2016 New Zealand Institute of International Affairs
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Ross, Ken
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jan 1, 2016
Previous Article:An English tea party? Rita Ricketts reflects on the advent of Jeremy Corbyn as British Labour leader and compares him with David Lange.
Next Article:A tale with many dimensions: Fu Ying explains the many challenges facing China and predicts a successful outcome because of strong fundamentals.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters