French criticism of nuclear ban treaty highlights Canberra’s dilemma

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks in Noumea’s central square (Photo: Supplied/Nic Maclellan)

Can Australia rebuild a strategic military partnership with France at the same time as independence movements claim Pacific support?

On 28 September, the Assembly of French Polynesia unanimously passed a resolution endorsing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the nuclear ban treaty that entered into force in 2021. Even though France refuses to sign the treaty, and still controls the defence and foreign policy of French Polynesia, the local legislature in Tahiti with its new pro-independence government sees TPNW as setting a new norm in international law. The resolution encourages “the participation of France as an observer state at the next TPNW Meeting of the States Parties”, to be held in New York in late November. It also calls on the French government to “work towards France’s adherence to this new international norm.”

A key reason for this pointed message to Paris are the TPNW provisions that call for assistance to nuclear survivors and clean-up of contaminated nuclear test sites. The Ma’ohi people are still seeking compensation for the health and environmental effects of 193 French nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa.

Beyond this, French Polynesia’s critique of nuclear weapons echoes the views of the majority of members of the Pacific Islands Forum. Unlike Australia, nine independent Pacific Island countries and Aotearoa-New Zealand have already signed and ratified the TPNW.

At the recent Australian Labor Party (ALP) National Conference in Brisbane, the party re-confirmed its support for signing the TPNW – under restrictive conditions – and agreed to send an observer to the next Meeting of State Parties. However key ALP leaders are opposed to signing, and nuclear weapons states such as the United States and France, having long derided the treaty, are now ramping up their opposition to it.

Why should Australia side with a European colonial power against its closest neighbours?

A front-page story in The Australian on 02 October cited an unnamed French diplomat who criticised Australia over its tentative moves towards signing TPNW, though the story fails to mention last week’s resolution from the Assembly of French Polynesia.

“Observers to the TPNW de facto commit themselves to support the promotion of this treaty as they are requested to financially support it”, the French official said. “From our viewpoint, there is a contradiction between such a move and the support to the primacy of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

After the AUKUS announcement in September 2021, France officially downgraded its strategic partnership with Australia. Since then, the ALP government has been seeking to rebuild Canberra’s ties with Paris. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese travelled to the NATO summit in Madrid just weeks after his election, then met French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée Paris on 1 July 2022.

Since then, the Australian government has held a series of meetings with key French ministers to rebuild relations disrupted by AUKUS, including a summit between Defence Minister Richard Marles and French counterpart Sebastien Lecornu in September 2022, and a 2+2 meeting of defence and foreign ministers in January. Marles and Lecornu are organising the South Pacific Defence Ministers meeting in Noumea in December, to the dismay of the FLNKS independence movement, which is in the midst of talks with the French state over a new political status for New Caledonia.

Last year, Marles congratulated Emmanuel Macron on his re-election to the French presidency, proclaiming “France is our neighbour. France is a Pacific country. And as such, France deeply matters to Australia.”

But France is a European colonial power, not a Pacific country. It is recognised by the United Nations as the administering power of non-self-governing territories. It has responsibilities for decolonisation under international law. Australian governments may be reluctant to talk publicly about this, but the issue of self-determination is firmly on the regional agenda, posing difficult choices for all Forum member countries (as shown by recent debates over West Papua, Bougainville, Guam, etc).

Another problem is that, in both Australia and France, the perspectives of leaders from Francophone island communities are usually missing from the public debate about France’s role in Indo-Pacific security. It’s rare to see the media or think tanks cite President Louis Mapou of New Caledonia or newly elected President Moetai Brotherson of French Polynesia. Both will be attending the next Pacific Islands Forum summit in Rarotonga as it discusses regional security – for the first time, leaders from both French territories in the Forum are supporters of independence and sharp anti-nuclear critics.

So, can Australia rebuild a strategic military partnership with France at the same time as its Pacific neighbours are seeking an independent and sovereign state?

As Penny Wong travelled to Noumea last April, becoming the first Australian Foreign Minister to address the Congress of New Caledonia, Mapou was eager to strengthen ties with Canberra around trade, investment and people-to-people engagement. He also diplomatically highlighted key differences around Australia’s close alignment with the United States under the AUKUS partnership:

The independence movement of New Caledonia – of which I’m a member – is in favour of non-alignment. We regularly attend the summits of the Non-Aligned Movement. From the earliest days, we have supported a nuclear free Pacific – that’s even set out in the preamble of the draft Constitution of Kanaky that we submitted to the United Nations in 1986. When Australia decides to align itself with the United States in the framework of AUKUS to acquire nuclear submarines, it raises the question: if it starts here, where will it end? How does this impact the Treaty of Rarotonga and the Boe Declaration on security? The Albanese government has proclaimed its support for a world without nuclear weapons. But talk is easy. It’s getting harder for the ALP government to balance tensions between its role as an AUKUS partner, a strategic partner with France and the “security partner of choice” for the island nations of the Pacific, which are deeply opposed to nuclear weapons. Why should Australia side with a European colonial power against its closest neighbours.

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