French President to visit Melanesian nations

Macron last visited New Caledonia in May 2018

In an unprecedented tour, French President Emmanuel Macron will travel to Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea next week, after holding discussions in New Caledonia on the political future of the French Pacific dependency.

The visit to Melanesia comes as the French government seeks to assert its role in the Asia-Pacific region, at a time of heightened geopolitical contest between the United States and China.

Arriving in Noumea on Monday night, 24 July, Macron is scheduled to spend Tuesday meeting customary leaders and youth groups, attending a military parade in Place Bir-Hakeim, and making a flying visit to the northern town of Touho.

On Wednesday, the French President will hold discussions with political leaders from the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) and three anti-independence formations. Later in the day, he is due to make a major speech in the Place des Cocotiers – Noumea’s main square – outlining his vision for New Caledonia’s future political status.

Macron is then scheduled to travel to neighbouring Vanuatu on Thursday, followed by a brief visit to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on Friday.

New status for New Caledonia

The presidential visit to New Caledonia follows months of bilateral talks between French Overseas Minister Gérald Darmanin and the FLNKS independence movement. Darmanin is planning further talks with New Caledonia leaders in Paris in late August, hoping to finalise a political statute to replace the 1998 Noumea Accord. The French government must forge an agreement between supporters and opponents of independence by September, to enable changes to the French Constitution in early 2024 that would open the way for New Caledonia’s local elections to proceed next May.

The ambitious timetable is also complicated by the Macron administration’s political weakness within France. Despite his re-election for a second term in April 2022, President Macron’s Renaissance party lost its overall majority in the French National Assembly during June 2022 legislative elections. Since then, Macron’s standing in public opinion polls has collapsed, especially after he relied on extra-parliamentary executive powers to ram through changes to France’s retirement age and pensions system, ignoring months of strikes and public protests.

Last month, France was again wracked by mass protests and rioting in cities across the country, following the police shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk, a French citizen of Algerian and Moroccan descent. As young people condemned state-sponsored racism and police violence, mass public rallies were followed by nights of riots and street fighting. Macron’s reputation, already battered by the pensions dispute, has suffered a further blow. With Overseas Minister Darmanin also serving as Interior Minister (in charge of policing and the “forces of order”), the government’s key interlocutor with the FLNKS has been distracted by the recent crisis.

The 1998 Noumea Accord is entrenched in the French Constitution, so the French President now faces a complex challenge to garner political support across the spectrum, in order to change the constitution and introduce a new political statute for New Caledonia.

However there are still major differences between the independence movement – seeking a timetable for a transition to an independent and sovereign state – and their Loyalist opponents. A crucial stumbling block is the lack of agreement on residency requirements for New Caledonian citizenship, which is required to vote for the three provincial assemblies and national Congress.

Building ties with Vanuatu and PNG

After his meetings in Noumea, Macron will be the first French President to visit the independent nation of Vanuatu (although his predecessor General Charles de Gaulle visited the islands in 1966, at a time when France and Great Britain jointly administered the pre-independence condominium of the New Hebrides).

In September 1966 – just three months after France began its nuclear testing program in the South Pacific – President de Gaulle toured the three French colonies of New Caledonia, New Hebrides and French Polynesia. He made a five-hour stop-over in Port Vila, then travelled on to Ma’ohi Nui, to witness a 110-kiloton atmospheric nuclear test, code name Betelgeuse, at Moruroa Atoll.

President Macron’s Pacific tour also comes at a time of geopolitical contest and nuclear sabre-rattling. In Port Vila, he is likely to speak about China’s role in the Pacific and France’s place in the region.

Macron’s unprecedented visit to Port Vila will also highlight cultural connections. Vanuatu is a member of La Francophonie (the network of French speaking nations that echoes the British Commonwealth), and Macron will seek to highlight historical connections as well as contemporary agendas on climate change and development.

Finally, on Friday, the French President is scheduled to make a stopover in Papua New Guinea, before flying home. His brief time in Port Moresby echoes recent visits by US, Indian and Chinese politicians and diplomats, who have lined up to woo the largest Forum island country.

In a statement, PNG Prime Minister James Marape said that “in the midst of the evolving geopolitical landscape in the region, Papua New Guinea serves as ‘neutral ground,’ and I will urge France to consider PNG’s strategic position amidst the changing regional dynamics.”

Macron will highlight France’s role in supporting climate action and biodiversity, but the visit may amplify the role of French investment in the PNG resources sector. Prime Minister Marape said that “the visit of President Macron to Papua New Guinea will further solidify the growing cooperation and shared goals between our two nations, particularly in the areas of forest conservation, French investments in Papua New Guinea such as TotalEnergies, mobilising resources to support small Pacific Island countries and communities, and other relevant matters.”

The French corporation TotalEnergies controls interests in several deep offshore exploration licenses, as Papua New Guinea seeks to develop its extensive oil and gas reserves. TotalEnergies also holds 40.1% interest in Papua LNG, alongside joint venture partners ExxonMobil and Santos, as Western powers compete with China for infrastructure and resource contracts in the Melanesian nation.

Indo-Pacific contest

Since his 2017 election, this is Macron’s second visit to Noumea, after he last toured Australia and New Caledonia in May 2018. During his stopover in Sydney, Macron first announced his Indo-Pacific strategy, proposing an “India-Australia-France” axis to contest Chinese influence in the region. The strategy highlights France’s claim to be a Pacific power through its colonial control of New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia, as well as other French dependencies in the Indian Ocean.

During an April 2023 state visit to Beijing, and hosting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Paris for Bastille Day last week, the French President presented his nation as a “balancing force” between this century’s two major powers, the United States and People’s Republic of China. However a January 2023 report from the French Senate Foreign Affairs, Armed Forces and Defence Committee questions the gulf between rhetoric and reality in his Indo-Pacific policy. The report states “our ambitions to be a balancing power are not in line with our real weight, which ultimately raises questions about the very credibility of our strategy.”

The Senate report also notes that the Indo-Pacific Strategy was designed without involvement of Kanak and Ma’ohi politicians, who “were not consulted by the metropolitan executive power prior to the adoption of the strategy, or, more recently, the deployment of military forces in their territories.”

Macron was originally scheduled to visit Wallis and Futuna on this trip, but the domestic crises at home have cut short his tour, and Mata ‘Utu will go without a presidential stopover, yet again. Beyond this, the governments of France’s two larger colonial possessions in the Pacific are currently led by pro-independence politicians. Presidents Louis Mapou of New Caledonia and Moetai Brotherson of French Polynesia are seeking to build closer ties with neighbouring Forum island countries, as well as other powers active in the region, from the United States to Australia, New Zealand and Korea.

At a time, the FLNKS is calling for a timetable for a transition to an independent and sovereign nation, Paris too is eager to extend its diplomatic and security relations with other members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). MSG members have long supported self-determination in New Caledonia, and Fiji and Papua New Guinea serve as members of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation. For this reason, Paris is eager to focus on discussion on climate change and development funding, rather than its role as an administering power of three colonies across the Pacific.