JULIAN Agnon of Blue Ocean Law recently penned ‘Enduring Colonization: How France’s Ongoing Control of French Polynesian Resources Violates the International Law of Self-Determination.’ The paper however is silent on the other French territories of New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna. For New Caledonia, its route to independence is mapped out under the Noumea Accord and the laws impacting its resources may vary from those of French Polynesia. Wallis and Futuna has no equivalent accord. But all are listed under Part Four of the Treaty establishing the European Community as France’s overseas territories.
Such a claim of violation by France is likely to hit a raw nerve in the psyche of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) members, particularly of Forum Island Countries (FICs) that are actively galvanising for French decolonisation at the United Nations. The legal verification of the violation, tendered by Agnon, will add fuel to the decolonisation process in the Pacific.
PIF, in the first place, has to manage the situation presented here. At first, when French Polynesia and New Caledonia became PIF members, by way of a consensus resolution which was subsequently acknowledged as being political, it was envisaged by some that this might undermine decolonisation efforts in the Pacific. This was concluded because once those two French territories were let into the PIF, it would lead to increased presence of metropolitan France in regional affairs of the Forum and the dynamics of regional decisions could change to accommodate the French voice.
However, the concern generated by the Agnon paper is fundamental to the whole question on the decolonisation process and is likely to raise strategic complications on how PIF members should accommodate this French voice. How can FICs, for example, persist at the UN to push for decolonisation when the prospects of increased French influence as a development partner, are increasingly being programmed into regional activities? How can they support Pacific churches who have recently raised their call for decolonisation of French Polynesia in particular?
As can be expected, the clash between bilateral and regional considerations will, inevitably, come into play. Geopolitics will intrude. How can PIF members, especially PICs, reconcile these considerations? There are those, supposedly, that can compartmentalise these considerations and make judicious regional decisions. It may not be easy. But it is doable.
However there are those who will find it difficult. Australia, for instance, had sought French engagement in the Indo-Pacific geostrategic framework and continued to do so, as reported by The Australian last June. Australia, therefore, may not rock the French boat. New Zealand is likely to do the same given it had indicated its acquiescence to Australia when both had consulted prior to the imposition of Indo-Pacific.
Papua New Guinea can be capricious. When its former Prime Minister had a state visit to Paris in 2016, he was reported to have said that he “would like to see PNG become a significant hub for France in the Pacific.” That bilateral sentiment that frames national issues can get in the way of decisions to grow and unite Pacific regionalism under its current Framework (The Framework for Pacific Regionalism).
Vanuatu, on the other hand, can be a fence-sitter on regional issues and decisions aimed at circumscribing French engagement in Pacific regionalism. Ni-Vanuatu are beneficiaries of a new French initiative to travel visa-free to New Caledonia. Furthermore, considering the country’s condominium history involving France and Great Britain and the remnants of the colonial shared power structure on ni-Vanuatu and their culture, it can be envisaged that their balancing act of fence sitting can topple on the side of the metropolitan player that happens to be the flavour of the month. This can be favourable or unfavourable depending on the issue being discussed.
In retrospect, however, such undermining of Pacific regionalism is not new. The sapping of PIF’s foundation through the preponderance of national and bilateral sentiments
over regional ones has frustrated PIF for years since its inception. A careful and systematic political and economic analysis of PIF, under various popularly-used analytical lens including, for instance, ‘Actors, political elites, agency and incentives’, will verify this.
That is one question, albeit a critical one, that the Forum and its Secretariat, PIFS, will have to address. There are others, equally vexatious.
French decolonisation, by virtue of its particularity in the context of Pacific regionalism, is considered a bilateral issue – that between PIF members on one side and France, on the other. The subject matter may not be relevant for the collective Forum Dialogues partners. PIF/PIFS may need to programme a specific bilateral, or a series of bilaterals with France, to raise the matter. In the same way PIF/PIFS needs a special bilateral with Indonesia to raise the issue of West Papua.
The French voice in regional matters has become more vocal since the membership of French Polynesia and New Caledonia in 2016. There have been reports of French insistence to be heard in matters relating to the authority and management of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of those two PIF members. The Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) is grappling with this matter when it comes to related regional fisheries management.
Furthermore, the use of the French language in regional meetings apart from those of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) has been raised. It appears that this comes across with a carrot on a stick. It is reported that the new PIF members would even pay for the introduction of the language and for all the concomitant facilities this requires. The offer of payment however has attracted unsolicited speculation: that this would
amount to resources being directly disbursed from the treasury of the metropolitan.
When all is considered, the French language is already a language of the Pacific, and of Pacific regionalism. SPC is a member of the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific (CROP), chaired by the PIFS Secretary General and it uses French as one of its two working languages. It can be envisaged therefore that inclusion of the French language to all other PIF meetings is possible but complex and costly in terms of staffing, equipment and logistics.
However, linguistics aside, in the context of still-raw French colonial and post-colonial sentiments, this appears like a red rag to a bull. It is debated in some circles that if French is added as a lingua franca, why not any of the national languages of the Pacific Island Countries? Or why not one of the existing patois?
Another vexatious question confronting PIF/PIFS is how to manage logistically the negotiations for a post-Cotonou agreement. The Pacific ACP (PACP) States have started their negotiations with the EU on a Pacific-EU Protocol. Neither French Polynesia nor New Caledonia is included in PACP States that negotiate directly with the EU despite their PIF membership. They cannot therefore sit with PACP States during the negotiations.
They do however sit as members of PIF and could have access to sensitive information about the negotiations. Management of such information by PIF and also by the Forum Secretariat staff plays a critical role here.
To date, French territories have always had their separate provisions under various ACP-EU agreements since Lome 1. How will French Polynesia and New Caledonia be treated now that they are members of PIF?
The author is a former Fijian ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.