France-Oceania Summit: A Thawing of Relations
France-Oceania Summit Formalises Thawing Of France-Pacific Relations
By Patrick Antoine Decloitre
PARIS (Oceania Flash/Pacific Media Watch): The second edition of a France-Oceania summit, held on Monday in the French capital under the chairmanship of French President Jacques Chirac, has been regarded as heralding a new era in the relationships between France, the Pacific islands and two of its largest countries, Australia and New Zealand.
With the two regional powers, relations with France had been lukewarm and sometimes tense during the past two decades, mainly due to the French nuclear tests in French Polynesia (which ended in 1996) and in the mid-1980s, the sinking of the Greenpeace flagship the Rainbow Warrior.
But in recent years, in a mending exercise, France has stepped up cooperation efforts with Canberra and Wellington in terms of regional cooperation and assistance to the Pacific Islands.
This has materialised especially through increased defence cooperation and multilateral assistance to the Pacific region, with French-Australian-New Zealand programmes targeting areas in the sectors of public health, relief to disaster struck populations and more recently with a tripartite initiative to improve maritime surveillance and combat illegal and unreported fishing in the greater South Pacific.
The increase in collaborative and pooled cooperation between the three countries is now regarded as a sort of tripod on which further development assistance can rely.
The first practical application of this approach was initiated back in the early 1990s when France, Australia and New Zealand agreed to form a "FRANZ" pact to jointly bring relief to cyclone-stricken South Pacific neighbours.
Apart from a fishing surveillance of FRANZ that is close to being finalised, the three partners are also mooting a new chapter, this time specifically aimed at "improving vigilance, responses, planning and alert systems for natural disasters … and reinforce impact reduction and alert systems for tsunamis".
The new, pragmatic approach was also regarded as a precondition to a better acceptance of France in the Pacific region, French President Chirac admitted on Monday at a post-summit press conference and in presence of 16 Pacific Forum heads of member States and governments, plus the three heads of executives of France's Pacific countries and territories (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna).
Answering a question from Oceania Flash asking him whether he would agree that the improvement of relations with Australia and New Zealand has been a determining factor in the fresh acceptance of France's role in the Pacific region, President Chirac said it was "plain obvious".
"First, Australia and New Zealand are two essential powers of the region. They have had a policy of cooperation and solidarity with the whole of the Pacific, for a very long time. And nothing can be done without the participation of the three entities (France, Australia and New Zealand).
Therefore, France, which is also present in the region, also has interests and concerns, like global warming, fisheries, development, inter-regional trade. Hence the natural character of a perfect cooperation between France, Australia and New Zealand for all matters that regard this region. And I can tell you that this cooperation has gradually grown and at present knows no problem or limitation".
Asked by Oceania Flash on whether he would agree that this kind of relationship would have simply been unthinkable only a few years ago, President Chirac replied: "There's some truth in that. It is true that there were times when our interests were not that converging. When, for reasons that I will not elaborate on, but that at the same time I can understand, New Zealand or Australia have had things to say against France.
That's the way it is. Such is the life of nations. But the life of nations also means that they can overcome obstacles or difficulties. And this is what we have now done. So the past is one thing, but I can tell you that the future holds a true cooperation, hand in hand, between our countries, for the benefit of the whole region".
The new pledges also mark a significant push for a better integration of the Pacific region, on at least three levels: first, the overall integration of the Pacific as a "block", second the integration of France's countries and territories this ensemble and third a better integration of the European Union in the Pacific, through France's dependencies.
Speaking on Monday, French President Chirac stressed France's will for an enhanced "political dialogue" and "cooperation".
"I also wish to express our wish to see New Caledonia and French Polynesia gain access to associate member status at the Forum, and Wallis and Futuna to that of an observer", Chirac said.
Through France, Chirac added, Europe was also a part of the Pacific.
"Europe cannot remain indifferent to the future of a region that covers a third of the world's surface and also harbours invaluable natural treasures. Europe wants to help you build an ecologically-preserved Pacific. A Pacific of harmony and stability. A Pacific of prosperity that finds its place in a new global economy", he told Pacific leaders.
Papua New Guinea Prime minister Sir Michael Somare, who is also the current chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum, speaking at a joint press conference on Monday, at the side of French President Jacques Chirac, also agreed, saying France's standing and attitude within the
Pacific region had completely changed over the past ten years.
“France has always had an interest in the Pacific … There is a good sense of honesty in how France now deals with the Pacific… Indications are that this relationship is on a progressive path. This time, there is a real commitment to help us", he told journalists.
Sir Michael also told regional leaders on Monday, during a keynote address, that the Forum "applauds France’s helpful efforts in integrating its Pacific territories with the other countries of the region. I welcome the French Government’s decision to allow New Caledonia and French Polynesia to be associate members of, and for Wallis and Fortuna to seek observer status, to the Pacific Islands Forum."
While both New Caledonia and French Polynesia are understood to have formally applied to the new status, the move should be formalised at the next Forum leaders' meeting in Nukualofa (Tonga) in October.
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