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THE SOUTH PACIFIC: a new frontier?

Jean-Jack Queyranne discusses the future of New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

The Pacific is above all the biggest ocean in the world, covering 176 million square kilometres, which is 300 times the surface of France. It contains over half of all the ocean water on Earth. It is a place for adventurers, and was for many years left to the whalers, the sandalwood traders and the excesses of beachcombers.

When the European navigators like Englishman James Cook, the Dutchman Tasman, and the Frenchmen Bougainville and La Perouse `discovered' the waters and lands of the Pacific, in the wake of the Spaniard Balboa in 1513 and the navigation of the `Great Ocean' by the Portuguese Magellan in 1520-21, they found that men had already settled there.

With its thousands of islands scattered over its surface, forming three main geographical and social groups -- Micronesia, the group of tiniest islands, Melanesia, the islands of mixed blood groups, and Polynesia, the islands of the multitude -- the Pacific had for hundreds of years been a place where people circulated and migrated. In the Pacific, the immense distances are not incompatible with neighbourliness: on the contrary, they are simply its special feature.

The migrations, which began several tens of thousands of years ago, contributed to the populating of the insular continent of Oceania, building up the dense trading network for goods and cultural objects between islands, some of which, still in existence today, bear witness to this singular civilisation.

The contact between these primeval societies, characterised by the natural state of their peoples, and the explorers from, in the words of French writer Michel Butor, `the other side of the other end of the world, upside down', was often brutal, insofar as the Europeans' interest in the Pacific was not just scientific, geographical, religious or ethnographic.

The European wish to expand throughout the known world began with Magellan's transnavigation, and grew with the exploration of America, Asia and Africa. It reached its climax in Oceania as early as the end of the eighteenth century and above all in the nineteenth. Colonial domination grew at the same pace as the rivalry and competition between the ruling countries of the time: Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, France and the United States.

France's sovereignty, as of the middle of the nineteenth century, was exercised over the three territories which, to this day, have remained under the rule of the French Republic. In Tahiti, French dominion was, at the request of Queen Pomare, in the form of a protectorate instituted in 1842. A. similar protectorate was created in Wallis and Futuna, at the request of the Kings of Alo, Sigave and Wallis, in 1887. In New Caledonia, possession was taken on 24 September 1853.

Initially, these archipelagos were organised into French Oceanian Establishments, under the authority of a governor answering directly to Paris. New Caledonia came under the French wing of its own accord, before two distinct establishments were set up in 1860. The first statute on the `government of New Caledonia' came into force in 1874, and remained so in part until 1976.

Even if it creates a trading counter or, as France did in New Caledonia, fosters development of mineral production (nickel, in this case), a colonial system dispossess the original inhabitants of their land, and the result is often social exclusion, absence of civil rights and denial of cultural heritage. Up to the eve of the Second World War, the Kanaks of New Caledonia had neither political nor civil rights.

This was the reality that the Foreword to the Noumea Agreement, signed on 5 May 1998 by the French government and its two Caledonian political partners, was intended to address. By declaring that the time had come to `acknowledge the shadows of the colonial period, even though it was not totally devoid of light', the document, in the words of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, `casts a lucid eye over the past'. This is what will be necessary to build up confidence in the future. Other countries, especially in the Pacific, as you know, have taken a similarly cool look at their own histories.

The awakening of Oceania to its own moral, cultural and individual identity during the years between 1960 and 1970 also occurred in political life. The movement for emancipation and an end to colonisation, which had mainly affected Africa and Asia, gradually spread to the Pacific. All the powers in the region were led to address the problem, each in his own time, and each according to the historical associations between peoples and political wishes.

Landmark dates

As regards New Caledonia, two landmark dates were significant during this period, and they correspond to two major political decisions: the first was the signature of the Matignon Accords, on 26 June 1988, and the second was the signature of the Noumea Agreement on 5 May 1998.

In his `Letter to all Frenchmen', Francois Mitterrand, the President of the French Republic, wrote on the eve of the 1988 Presidential election that `New Caledonia is stumbling in the dark bumping into walls and hurting itself. The crisis it is undergoing is a miniature version of the colonial drama, and it is time for it to rid itself of it'.

After several decades of incomprehension, suffering and crises, the Matignon Accords, signed on 26 June 1988 by Michel Rocard, the Prime Minister, Jacques Lafleur, representing the RPCR (Assembly for a Republican Caledonia), and Jean-Marie Tjibaou, representing the FLNKS (the Kanak socialist movement for Caledonia liberation) opened up new prospects for New Caledonia, promising long-lasting peace based on co-existence and dialogue, as well as balanced economic, social and cultural development throughout the territory.

These agreements were the result of the disaster at Ouvea, at a time when New Caledonia was on the brink of civil war. The `mission du dialogue', the opening of a dialogue between the main streams of spiritual and philosophical thought, set up by Michel Rocard, enabled the barriers of incomprehension and hate to be broken down. It is to the lasting credit of the Caledonian leaders, of both European and Melanesian origin, that they succeeded in overcoming their differences and agreed to shake hands as a sign of a new beginning. It is to be recalled that only a year later, Jean-Marie Tjibauo, that visionary, was to be assassinated at Ouvea.

Institutionalised stability

Over the ten years that followed the Matignon Accords, New Caledonia experienced institutional stability that was unprecedented in the recent history of the territory. Also unprecedented was the fact that the statute had been negotiated with the leading New Caledonian political parties and not granted by Paris, and that the French population had approved it by a majority vote in a referendum.

The Matignon Accords provided for organisation of a vote on self-government after ten years, to be made by the `populations concerned' in New Caledonia. However, the feeling soon arose that given the peculiarity of a territory in which two populations of similar size (a reality not always present in other places) coexist, a vote of this type could re-ignite smouldering resentment, set people in their opinions and therefore result in regression.

Thus, to keep faith the underlying philosophy of the Matignon Accords, in which each party had agreed `not to overcome but to convince', the idea of a consensual solution was arrived at. The Noumea Agreement, signed on 5 May 1998 by Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, Jacques Lafleur, and Rock Wamytan, the Chairman of the FLNKS, defined the terms of this consensus at the same time as it laid the foundations for a new relationship between New Caledonia and France.

More than any other commentary, the opinion of the Caledonian signatories themselves on this agreement is the best illustration of the spirit behind their common approach. On 5 May 1998, in Noumea, speaking before a gathering of heads of government and representatives from most of the states, in the region, Rock Wamytan spoke of a `founding pact'. He made a solemn declaration in the name of the FLNKS: `This solution is well suited to the complexity of the Caledonian problem, which for once has been well defined. It is not yet another statute, but truly the ordering of a country called upon to develop politically.' Jacques Lafleur, speaking for the RPCR, declared: `This agreement is the true expression of our wish to build and live in a New Caledonia in which everyone can live happily. New Caledonia will thus be an actor in its own destiny, and not merely an onlooker.'

The Noumea agreement provided for the political organisation of New Caledonia for the coming twenty years. It thus ceases to be an overseas territory of France, as provided in Article 74 of the French Constitution. The Agreement sets forth the procedures for emancipation of New Caledonia, which, as a special territorial entity within the Republic, is now provided for in the French Constitution trader `Transitional provisions for New Caledonia'.

Resounding majority

The Noumea Agreement was voted by a resounding majority (71.8 per cent) of Caledonian voters on 8 November 1998. The agreement has led to a new political phase in which Kanak identity has been recognised, and sovereignty is shared with France. In order to take account of Kanak identity in New Caledonian political organisation, the customary rules and laws have had to be improved, and the role of the customary authorities has had to be recognised. To do this, a customary Senate was created, and the Kanak cultural heritage has been protected and fostered. Measures on regulation of land ownership and identity signs to express the essential role of Kanak identity in the shared destiny agreed by New Caledonia have been adopted.

As regards institutions, one of the principles laid down in the Noumea Agreement is the recognition of a New Caledonian citizenship which could be changed into a status of nationality after the term of the Agreement, should it be so decided. Over this period, the notion of citizenship will serve as a criterion for any restrictions on those eligible to vote, especially in the last round of a ballot, and also any provisions designed to maintain local employment.

In accordance with the provisions of the Noumea Agreement, the Territory Congress, elected on 9 May 1999, elected a collegial government of eleven members by proportional representation. This government is responsible to the Congress. The head of the executive, who was elected on 29 May, is President Jean Leques, the current mayor of Noumea. The executive power is thus shared between the main political forces of the country.

The Congress may, by a qualified three-fifths majority, vote laws known as `lois du pays' (laws of the country) in areas laid down by the institutional Act. Only the French Conseil Constitutionnel is empowered to review such laws.

Shared sovereignty signifies that powers are shared between the French state and New Caledonia. Transfer of power will be gradual, beginning on 1 January 2000, and will follow a defined timetable which may be modified by the Congress. Powers transferred from the state will be vested once and for all. At the end of this process, the state will retain only regalian powers such as justice, law and order, defence, and currency, as well as foreign affairs subject to certain provisions.

As regards New Caledonia's economy, it will be made possible for New Caledonia to gain sufficient mastery of the tools necessary for its development. For this purpose, the State has encouraged recent investment by Caledonians in Societe Le Nickel (SLN), which is currently the sole company extracting the metal on the territory, and in Eramet, the chief shareholder in SLN.

French public institutions only active in New Caledonia will become answerable to New Caledonian public institutions. Thus, the French post office and the agency for rural development and town and country planning will both be handed over to New Caledonia.

External relations

External relations, a field which mainly involves the relationships between New Caledonia and its Pacific neighbours, are worth examining. The French Republic can, under its state powers, vest the President of the New Caledonia government with the authority to negotiate and sign agreements with one or several states, territories or regional organisations in the Pacific, and with regional organisations answering to the specialised agencies of the United Nations. Failing this, the President of the New Caledonia government or his representative can be integrated into or participate in negotiations and signatures of agreements of a similar type, within the French delegation, for the purpose of ensuring that the special interests of New Caledonia are more adequately taken into account.

Under the power granted to New Caledonia, the Congress may authorise the President of the government to negotiate agreements with one or several states, territories or regional organisations in the Pacific, and with regional organisations answering to the specialised agencies of the United Nations, in compliance with the international undertakings of the French Republic.

The agreement also provides that the President of the government, and where necessary, the presidents of the provincial assemblies, be associated with or participate in negotiations on relationships between the European Union and New Caledonia.

Subject to the agreement of the authorities of the French Republic, New Caledonia may be a member, an associate member or an observer of international bodies. Thus, from now on, it may if it wishes be admitted as an observer or the South Pacific Forum. Finally, New Caledonia may send a representative to the European Union, as well as to Pacific states and territories.

On completion of the process set in train by the Noumea Agreement, a vote will be held during the fourth term of the Congress to begin in the year 2014. This vote will concern the transfer of the regalian powers held by the French state to New Caledonia, the accession to full international sovereignty and transformation of citizenship into nationality. Should the vote be a negative one, a new consultation may be organised under procedures set forth in the organic law.

It is therefore evident that France recognises the fact that New Caledonia will achieve full emancipation following the implementation of the Noumea Agreement.

On 26 August 1988, at the Noumea city hall, Prime Minister Rocard said France had to meet a challenge unprecedented since the Second World War, namely that of `achieving successful decolonisation within the institutional framework of the French Republic'. I believe it is possible for us to say today that this challenge was won.

The Noumea Agreement marked the beginning of a new era. In political terms, the conditions are now met for the re-establishment of a social contract between all of the communities living in New Caledonia, and for sharing sovereignty with France as a stage towards full sovereignty, should the Caledonians so decide.

Similar evolution

French Polynesia is going to undergo an evolution similar to that of New Caledonia, in keeping with its history which has unfolded at a different pace. Made up of five archipelagos of some 130 islands, islets and atolls, French Polynesia covers an area of 3521 square kilometres of land masses scattered over some 4 million square kilometres of ocean with a population of about 225,000. In the French cultural psyche, Tahiti and Polynesia are identified with the myth of the `South Seas' and of the `welcoming' islands which have always wrongly been likened to paradise.

In institutional terms, French Polynesia is an Overseas Territory within the French Republic with a status of autonomy currently defined by the Institutional Act of 12 April 1996. Reference to the notion of autonomy was made as early as 1977 in the statutes relating to French Polynesia. Autonomy was first known as autonomous management and then as internal autonomy in the 1984 Institutional Act.

In the face of the independence movement which is still a minority one, all those who wanted French Polynesia to evolve within the French Republic adhered to the concept of autonomy. Francis Sanford, deputy (member of the French Parliament) and Polynesian leader, gave Polynesia its modern dimension in 1960-70. A majority of Polynesians recognise and accept the principle of autonomy, whereas in New Caledonia both European and Kanak leaders reject the use of his word.

Extended scope

In political terms, in French Polynesia, the 1996 Institutional Act did not constitute a break from previous ones but ensured continuity. However, it greatly extends the scope of the concept of autonomy which, under French administrative law, simply means the degree of freedom given to decentralised authorities in managing local affairs.

The `advances' brought about by the 1996 Institutional Act are so great, however, that this Act has been referred to at times as a `Territorial Constitution'. Thus the Territory freely chooses the identity signs (flag, anthem, Order) enabling it to assert its personality at official public events alongside the national emblem and the signs of the Republic.

It should also be noted that the Tahitian language and the other Polynesian languages may be used, while French remains the official language.

The Executive of the Territory is the government of French Polynesia, headed by the President of the government, who appoints ministers and assigns them their portfolios. This Executive is elected.

The President of the government of Polynesia has special powers at international level. Thus, the authorities of the Republic can grant him the authority to negotiate and sign agreements in areas within the jurisdiction of the state or of the territory with one or several states, territories or regional bodies in the Pacific, and with regional bodies answering to UN specialised agencies. Failing this, the President of the government of Polynesia may be associated with, or take part in, French delegations, the negotiation of similar agreements in areas within the jurisdiction of the territory.

As it considers at this original status of autonomy has run its course, the government believes the time has come to take a further step in affirming the territory's identity with a view to meeting the expectations of the Polynesians.

Constitutional reform

Such a change implies a constitutional reform. Following discussions with the territory's government, whose President is Gaston Flosse, a constitutional Bill was framed. Submitted to the Council of Ministers on 26 May 1999, it was adopted on 10 June on first reading by the National Assembly. It should be passed at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year. It will then be incorporated into the French Constitution under the title `Provisions relating to French Polynesia' further to that on New Caledonia. Our two territories in the Pacific will thus have an original and acknowledged place in the French Constitution This will constitute a highly significant change in our monolithic legal system whose workings are based on large categories that constitute real constitutional moulds.

Within the framework of a new status of `overseas country', the local institutions of French Polynesia will have increased jurisdiction compared to that they currently exercise in many areas, such as the exploration and exploitation of marine resources, communications, the treatment applied to inward investments or negotiations on air and shipping routes. At international level, the jurisdiction of the institutions of French Polynesia will be comparable to that of the institutions of New Caledonia. Both territories will, in particular, be able to join regional, and even international organisations.

It will be possible for the Assembly of French Polynesia to pass Acts to be regarded as laws of the country, a provision already contained, as we have seen. in the Noumea Agreement. Finally, the establishment of a Polynesian citizenship will help to strengthen that overseas country's own identity within the French Republic. Those benefiting from that citizenship will have special rights as regards access to employment, setting up businesses and the protection of land ownership.

French determination

Ongoing changes in New Caledonia and French Polynesia reflect -- in ways suited to each territory -- France's determination to accompany, in accordance with its own values, the desire for emancipation of peoples with which it has historical ties. This approach is inspired to a great extent by the very spirit of the Pacific. Rather than set institutions rigidly in a tradition of normative law, the aim is to adopt a perspective of controlled evolution relying on permanent dialogue.

The changes provided for by statute in the two main French territories in the Pacific are likely to enhance understanding between France and its partners in the region, which was marred in recent years by misunderstandings. Such co-operation should be all the more sustained as it may now develop in a climate smoothed out following the end of underground nuclear testing in Polynesia in January 1996 and the signing by France in March 1996 of the Treaty of Rarotonga establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the South Pacific and of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

All these elements create conditions favourable to the regional integration of New Caledonia and French Polynesia, which, together with Vanuatu, form a French-speaking population of 500,000.

There exists a true partnership with New Zealand and Australia based on shared interests and common concerns. A significant outcome of this policy of co-operation was the signing in 1992 of an agreement for the co-ordination of the resources Australia, New Zealand and France are able to provide (FRANZ Agreement) in the event of natural disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis which unfortunately frequently, occur in the region.

The civil defence resources provided by France are, first and foremost, those to be found in New Caledonia and French Polynesia. This exemplary co-operation has brought our teams closer together and reinforced solidarity with the Pacific Island states where humanitarian operations were conducted in recent years, namely Tonga, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea which were hit in the space of a few months by a drought due to the El Nino phenomenon and by a terrible tsunami.

In November 1998, it was decided to make our working relations more operational by exchanging early warning procedures and setting up for our respective teams training sessions which representatives of island states would, where appropriate, be invited to attend.

Priority needs

In order to meet the priority needs of countries of the Pacific with respect to fisheries surveillance, France, Australia and New Zealand has agreed to divide their respective aerial surveillance resources among the various requesting Pacific Island states. Thus the French forces stationed in French Polynesia and New Caledonia have been requested to monitor the Cook Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu exclusive economic zones.

In recent years, France and New Zealand have increased their co-operation within regional organisations such as the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), and strengthened their cooperation within the group of donor countries. The financial effort, consisting of subsidies and loans, made by France for the development of Pacific Island states is in the region of $25 million.

Thanks to the support of New Zealand and Australia, France, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia were associated with multilateral negotiations on the conservation and management of migratory species in the central and western Pacific. In addition, France, in March 1998, launched on behalf of its three territories negotiations with the Forum Fisheries Agency aimed at gaining access for their tunny vessels to the various exclusive economic zones in the region. The agreement we are hoping to conclude will cover cooperation.

There are interesting opportunities for cooperation in the academic field and in scientific research geared to development. These could, for instance, involve the networking of projects and actions conducted by the two French universities of the Pacific based in Noumea and Papeete and by other academic institutions in the Pacific.

Resource centres

Our Noumea-based research institutes -- Institute for Research on Development (IRD, formerly ORSTOM), IFREMER, CIRAD in the agricultural field, the Papeete-based Louis Marlarde Institute in the field of tropical diseases -- aim to become fully-fledged regional `resource centres' capable of undertaking multi-annual research programmes with their partners and of meeting the specific needs of islands state facing difficulties with their environment.

I mentioned above the prospects opened up for New Caledonia in connection with the South Pacific Forum. Given on-going changes, it should be possible for French Polynesia to benefit from the same status on the occasion of the conference of heads of government scheduled in Palau in October 1999. I had the opportunity to tell the SPF Secretary-General, Noel Levi, when he visited Paris recently, that France, for its part, is in favour of this.

As on several occasions in the past since 1991, the Forum expressed the wish that a mission of member states visit New Caledonia in the coming months. This was accepted in principle by the French government. The new powers which were transferred to Neww Caledonia in the field of external relations and which will be transferred to French Polynesia shortly, will enable these territories to deepen their bilateral relations with their neighbours and natural partners: in the case of New Caledonia, Vanuatu with which a framework convention was signed in 1993, as well as Australia and New Zealand; in the case of French Polynesia, all of the Pacific Island states within its zone of influence.

Will the 21st century be that of the Pacific? Long distances, narrow markets, population growth, an agricultural type economy and the lack of correlative industries and job-generating services do not give rise to inordinate optimism.

The island states of the Pacific, however, constitute for the future an area indispensable to world economic growth, given they can control 30 million square kilometres of ocean whose fishing resources are increasingly sought for, and act as telecommunications relays.

France, the leading European Union representative, has been involved in the Pacific for more than 150 years and is intent on continuing to contribute to the development of island states in the Pacific together with New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

French sovereignty over three territories in the Pacific -- Tahiti, New Caledonia, and Wallis and Futuna -- dates from the nineteenth century. Not until the 1960s did the movement towards de-colonisation spread to Oceania, and France in due course responded to the aspirations of the inhabitants of its territories. In New Caledonia the Matignon Accords of 1988 were a major landmark, and they have now been followed by another -- the Noumea Agreement signed on 5 May 1998 -- which has laid the foundations for a new relationship between New Caledonia and France. An evolution similar to that of New Caledonia will take place in French Polynesia as well. Its autonomous status as an Overseas Territory within the French Republic was formally defined in 1996.

Jean-Jack Queyranne is Secretary of State for French Overseas Territories. This article is the edited text of an address which he gave to the NZIIA's Wellington branch on 14 June 1999.
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Author:Queyranne, Jean-Jack
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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