France consolidates regional standing

By Nic Maclellan

As French President Emmanuel Macron visited Australia and New Caledonia in May, France consolidated its standing across the Pacific. President Macron strengthened defence ties with the Turnbull Government, reinforced anti-independence sentiment in New Caledonia and charmed Forum island leaders at a climate dialogue in Noumea.

Meanwhile, President Edouard Fritch won a convincing victory in local elections in French Polynesia, while Wallis and Futuna is mounting a bid to upgrade its status within the Pacific Islands Forum, from observer to associate member.

Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan surveys these shifts across the francophone Pacific.

Strategic ties to Australia

For some time, Australian governments have seen France as a valuable partner in the Pacific, bolstering the ANZUS alliance against growing influence from China and other “non-traditional” partners. As he welcomed French President Emmanuel Macron to Australia last month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made it clear that he sees France as a long-term ally in the Pacific.

“France is a Pacific power,” said Turnbull. “It is a Pacific nation and its significant presence in the region can only bring benefits to Australia and to the region more broadly. We welcome that and we’ll continue to work closely with France in our region.”

Emphasising “joint sacrifices on the battlefield,” from World War I to Iraq and Syria, Prime Minister Turnbull argued: “Australia and France are forces for good in the world.”

The two leaders signed a “Vision Statement on the Australia-France Relationship.” The new partnership focusses on global rather than regional concerns, dominated by the South China Sea, North Korean nuclear proliferation, military deployments in Iraq and Syria, cyber-cooperation, and partnerships in technology, counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing.

This enhanced cooperation is focussed on defence and security across the wider Indo-Pacific region. The concerns of the Kanak and Maohi peoples rank relatively low and there was no talk of decolonisation during the many public ceremonies!

During the visit to Sydney, Turnbull accompanied Macron to the Garden Island naval base, where the French President spoke at a function aboard the Australian warship HMAS Canberra. He looked like an arms dealer, surrounded on deck by French-designed equipment used by the Australian Defence Force.

The centrepiece of the expanded defence relationship is Canberra’s decision to grant a AU$50 billion contract to the French corporation Naval Group, to construct a new generation of Barracuda submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. During Macron’s visit, the two governments also announced other defence initiatives, proposing a Defence Industry Symposium to boost the arms industry and plans for a programme of cyber cooperation.

After a decade of negotiation, Australia and France signed a new Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA), to allow French and Australian naval and air units to use each other’s ports, fuel and logistics in the Pacific.

This increasing strategic cooperation is targeted at China, but is being used to justify French colonialism in the Pacific islands. Conflating “Indo-Pacific” to France’s colonial presence in the South Pacific is misleading. There is a vast distance between French bases in Noumea and Tahiti and potential hotspots in East Asia. French vessels transiting the South China Sea come from France, not Tahiti (a quick look at the map shows that Papeete is 11,587 kilometres or 6,256 nautical miles from Beijing!).

The notion that the French Pacific collectivities are a bulwark against Chinese expansionism is undercut by the reality that France deploys very few military assets in the South Pacific. At the same time, governments in Noumea and Papeete are eagerly seeking Chinese grants and investment in tourism, fisheries, infrastructure and New Caledonia’s nickel industry

Macron and New Caledonia

President Macron travelled on from Australia to Noumea at a crucial time, just months before the 4 November referendum on New Caledonia’s political status.

In a range of public events, he made symbolic gestures which highlighted France’s evolving relationship with New Caledonia. Macron announced the return of the original Act of Annexation from 1853 which is currently held in a French archive. He also visited the island of Ouvea on the 30th anniversary of the Ouvea hostage crisis, which saw the death of 19 Kanak activists, four French policemen and two Special Forces soldiers.

While reiterating that the French state would “accompany the people of New Caledonia” towards the November referendum, Macron stressed: “What I would like to say from the bottom of my heart, and in my role as President of the Republic, is that France would not be the same without New Caledonia.”

He reaffirmed the notion of France as a global power that would be weakened by the loss of its overseas colonies: “France would be less beautiful without New Caledonia, because New Caledonia is part of this global France, the France which exists in this region of the world, tens of thousands of kilometres from Paris. At heart, France’s very purpose is to shine across all continents and all oceans.”

Despite a warm public welcome, there were signs of unease from many supporters of independence. FLNKS leaders complained that the Act of Annexation document would be given to the Government of New Caledonia instead of representatives of the indigenous people who were colonised in 1853. On Ouvea, residents of Gossanah village called on the French President to halt his planned visit to the graves of 19 Kanak activists who were killed during the 1988 Ouvea massacre (Macron compromised by visiting the site at Wadrilla, but declining to lay a wreath on the tomb). Meanwhile, thousands of anti-independence supporters rallied in Noumea, flying the red, white and blue French flag.

A central theme of the trip was to highlight France’s role as a champion of climate action. In Noumea, Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attended a High Level Dialogue on Climate Change and Biodoversity at the Pacific Community headquarters in Anse Vata.

The prime ministers and presidents of New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tuvalu and Nauru were joined by a range of foreign ministers and officials to welcome President Macron. While lauding the French President’s commitment to implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, island leaders repeated long-standing concerns over climate finance and loss and damage. Nauru President Baron Waqa noted that “the time for talking is over,” reiterating that the Green Climate Fund and other financial instruments are difficult for Pacific countries to access.

Elections in French Polynesia

The Macron government also welcomed the electoral victory of President Edouard Fritch, who won a significant majority in the French Polynesian Assembly during last month’s local elections.

In a vibrant campaign, supporters of the three largest parties campaigned in traditional colours: orange for Gaston Flosse’s Tahoeraa Huiraatira; blue for Oscar Temaru’s pro-independence Tavini Huiraatira; and red for Fritch’s new governing party Tapura Huiraatira.

Winning 49.18 per cent of votes in the second round of voting on 6 May, Tapura held off a strong challenge from Tahoeraa, which dominated at the last elections in 2013. Despite a strong campaign in the streets, Tahoeraa only won 27.7 per cent of the vote, ahead of Tavini on 23.12 percent (three smaller electoral lists did not meet the 12.5 per cent bar to proceed beyond the first round of voting).

On election night, Edouard Fritch stood before a crowd of cheering supporters, stating: “You have voted for the peace and stability of French Polynesia….You have chosen realism and not demagogy. You have chosen autonomy, not independence.”

Fritch’s victory over Gaston Flosse is a significant defeat for “the old lion” of French Polynesian politics. Flosse led Tahoeraa to electoral victory at the last elections in 2013, but was removed from office in 2014 following his conviction on corruption charges. The subsequent years have seen a growing split between Flosse and his former deputy Fritch – a loyal supporter in successive Flosse governments (and Flosse’s former son-in-law). Fritch’s new breakaway Tapura party has now won a clear victory in its own right, leading the count in 39 of 48 municipalities around the country.

This year, the Tahoeraa list was officially led by Geffry Salmon, because Flosse is ineligible to sit in the local Assembly after losing his civil rights in the aftermath of convictions for corruption. Despite this, the 86-year old anti-independence politician was clearly pulling the strings during the campaign. Flosse governed French Polynesia throughout the nuclear testing era, and is still hoping to re-enter national politics when his current five year ban from elected office ends in July 2019.

President Fritch benefits from a curious feature of French Polynesia’s electoral system, which grants an extra 19-seat bonus to the electoral list that wins the largest support from voters. This means that the governing Tapura party will now hold 38 of the 57 seats in the Assembly, with Tahoeraa holding just 11 seats and Tavini eight.

Tahoeraa polled well in the outer islands, but its worst tallies were in the urban municipalities of Faa’a and Punaauia on Tahiti. Deeply disappointed after the election, Gaston Flosse said: “We were beaten by trickery, by manipulation. We had the French State working against us.”

Despite his loss, independence leader Oscar Temaru welcomed that his party had increased its support in municipalities around Tahiti, including former Flosse strongholds such as Punaauia and Papeete. Tavini however did not have the resources to campaign effectively in outlying archipelagos such as the Marquesas Islands and the Tuamotus. Temaru’s long-standing lieutenant Vito Maamatuahiautapu lost his seat in the Tuamotu West constituency, after serving 18 years in the Assembly.

As Tavini looks to the future, there will be significant generational change, with Temaru likely to pass the leadership torch to Moetai Brotherson and a new group of younger independence activists.

With five years before the next elections and his strong majority in parliament, President Fritch hopes for stability in government. However politicians are already looking to the 2020 municipal elections, where control of a town hall provides many opportunities to provide jobs for supporters!

Wallis and Futuna in the Forum?

Wallis and Futuna rarely gains the international attention given to New Caledonia and French Polynesia, but the Polynesian territory is making a bid for the spotlight. After gaining observer status at the Pacific Islands Forum in 2006, Wallis and Futuna is now seeking to upgrade its status to associate membership. A Forum delegation will soon travel to Mata Utu to meet with local politicians and prepare a report on the membership bid for Forum leaders.

This upgrade is supported by the French government and may gain some backing from members of the Polynesian Leaders Group: Tonga has strong cultural ties to Uvea, while Samoa has cultural links to Futuna.

But there are a number of hurdles to further integrating Wallis and Futuna into the Forum – an organisation originally made up of independent and sovereign nations. New Caledonia, which gained full Forum membership in 2016, won extensive legal powers under the Noumea Accord and has a clear pathway towards self-determination. In contrast, Wallis and Futuna remains under the firm control of the French state.

The relationship between France and Wallis and Futuna is governed by a 1961 statute, which has changed little in more than 50 years. A 2014 report from the French Senate Legal Commission noted: “Its integration in the category of overseas collectivities under Article 74 of the Constitution has not led to the overhaul of this statute, which has been characterised by a deep stability….Even with selective, limited changes, the statute of 29 July 1961 has lived on.”

Under the 1961 statute, France agreed to maintain three customary monarchies (one in Wallis and two in Futuna). In the three kingdoms in Uvea, Sigave and Alo, customary rights exist and co-exist within French law. Despite this recognition of local authority, however, President Macron remains as Head of State and is represented in Wallis and Futuna by a senior French official. The current administrator Jean-Francis Treffel serves as the head of government, holding extensive executive power.

Wallis and Futuna has an elected Assembly of 20 members (13 from Uvea and seven from Futuna). However, as the representative of the French state, the administrator holds sovereign power over defence, public security, external relations, judicial decisions and regulations, the operations of Treasury and customs, administrative and financial supervision and the operation of the courts.

As the French Senate Legal Commission noted: “As head of the Territory, the administrator represents the Territory before the courts and for all civil acts. He is head of the territorial public service and the official with the power to authorise expenditure from the territorial budget. The administrator maintains prerogatives under common law because he is required to approve all decisions of the Territorial Assembly. The Assembly is reduced to simply giving advice.”

While the Forum has long accepted membership of countries that do not meet the threshold for UN membership (such as Cook Islands and Niue), its members have the capacity to direct their own foreign policy, enter into international agreements and sign treaties, in spite of shared governance arrangements or free association with other states.

However, France’s three Pacific dependencies are non-self-governing territories, and lack control of key sovereign powers, including defence, foreign policy, courts and security. New Caledonia and French Polynesia can negotiate regional agreements in some defined areas, but the ability to implement them requires authorisation by the French state. The three dependencies lack the legal standing to accede to key international treaties, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

New Caledonia’s looming referendum on self-determination, to be held on 4 November, has crucial implications for Wallis and Futuna. More Wallisians live in New Caledonia than in their home islands. Remittances from workers in the nickel industry and other sectors play a crucial role in livelihoods for the Polynesian islands. New Caledonia’s relations with Wallis and Futuna come under a special treaty and key legal and administrative functions for the French state are managed from Noumea rather than Mata Utu (for example, the court for the District of Wallis and Futuna comes within the jurisdiction and authority of the Appellate Court of Noumea).

The decision taken by voters in New Caledonia will reverberate around the francophone Pacific. But will improved regional relations with the Macron government and a desire to better integrate the French colonies into regional institutions override the Forum’s long-standing status as an organisation of sovereign nations?

Share this article: