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France: Pacific or Indo-Pacific Player

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France: Pacific or Indo-Pacific Player

France and the UK are the only states that are not located in the Pacific region to have UN-listed (non-self-governing) territories in that part of the world. This analysis looks at France and comes after its president visited the region in July 2023.

France and the UK are the only states not located in the Pacific region to have UN-listed (non-self-governing) territories in that part of the world. [1] (The US and New Zealand also have such territory(s) but are situated there.) There is the British-administered Pitcairn Island. France administers four island dependencies, one of which is the uninhabited Clipperton Island which lies not far (relatively) from Central America. What differentiates the two European states as Pacific players and what can Pacific islanders expect from them?

This analysis looks at France. Given President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Nouvelle Calédonie, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea in July of 2023, it determines that a French presence in the region is promising to Pacific Island Countries (PICs). However, it is inclined to see the European country establish a stronger footing there, especially militarily, when Pacific islanders are wary of the militarization of their region. France will also have a greater influence in the regional decision-making framework. Although it affirms the Blue Pacific narrative, the dilution or reconfiguration of aspects therein has already occurred and tensions may arise between France and its partner PICs, on one side; ambivalent PICs in the middle; and PICs that do not agree with France. This may take place because the Pacific is adjacent to the geostrategically and economically important East Asia and Southeast Asia, which in turn are found in the “Indo-Pacific.”

France might undermine Pacific interests as it seeks to become a more consequential player in the Indo-Pacific, particularly after the term entered French foreign policy language in 2018 when Macron used it in a speech in Australia. [2] Moreover, France launched its first Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2018; it was updated in 2021. In 2019, it also published its defense and security strategy for the overarching region.

Background

France possesses the second-largest Economic Exclusion Zone in the world. Ninety-three percent of it lies in the Indo-Pacific, with the Pacific dependencies contributing to well more than half of that amount. [3] 

The country has a strong tradition [4] of seeking to forge its path in international affairs, fashioning itself as a great power; it appears to be practicing this again as it develops an alternative for Indo-Pacific countries who do not want to side with either China or the US in their ensuing rivalry [5].

The basis for French assertions of its Pacific character principally come from Nouvelle Calédonie, Polynésie Française, and Wallis et Futuna, each of which holds different legal statuses. [6] The sum of the populations of all three dependencies is nearly 615,000 persons. The French presence on these island territories offers its people various benefits including French citizenship and funds, such that the GDP per capita on Nouvelle Calédonie and Polynésie Française is higher than that of most Pacific Island Countries (PICs). 

Additionally, France was one of the five founding Dialogue Partners of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in 1989. It is also a member of the Pacific Community (SPC), a scientific and technical development body, and the Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP).

Pacific Islander Expectations

What can Pacific islanders expect from France? The 2021 strategy mentioned above enumerates four pillars of French “objectives and actions in the Indo-Pacific.” [7] The pillar that is presented first is “Security and Defense.” [8] This can be juxtaposed with “France’s niche offerings to its Indo-Pacific partners [lying] in its expertise in (i) environmental and climate security and (ii) governance of territorial waters” [9], as well as the EU strategy (see below). France has status in the realm of environmental and climate issues because it hosted COP21 in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was signed. (The fourth France-Oceania Summit occurred less than a week before that conference took place and placed emphasis on the upcoming gathering.) Governance of territorial waters has already been offered in patrols against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in the EEZs of neighboring island countries. It has done so as a part of the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group. [10] Additionally, France offers humanitarian assistance through the FRANZ alliance with Australia and New Zealand.

A highly probable source of significant hindrances and strengths for French action in the region is its membership in the European Union (EU), which in 2021 also published the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific with the encouragement of France and other Member States. [11] As for strengths, France can focus greater EU attention and resources on the PICs, especially given the 2021 EU strategy and in the framework of the new Organization of African, Caribbean, and Pacific States (OACPS) Partnership Agreement, and put its focus on certain areas of interest while relegating other functions to other EU countries. [12] PICs could seek to take advantage of infrastructure and development disbursals, such as through the Global Gateway initiative, and access to the European market given that the people of the French Pacific dependencies are French citizens. France could also spur negotiations on an economic partnership agreement between the EU and PICs that some islands started to apply in different years, firstly in 2011 and lastly in 2018. [13] 

However, EU membership can also inhibit or delay French foreign policy, security, and economic overtures to PICs as the first two require other members to agree and the latter is heavily regulated and guided by EU laws. Such limitations might be beneficial for PICs as it would give them time to formulate a Pacific response on any issue; it might also make them susceptible to the luring of other potential partners in the meantime.

Nevertheless, France must be careful with its Pacific endeavours. It only has five diplomatic missions in PIF member states. [14] Macron’s visit to the region earlier this year marked the first time that a French president had gone to an independent PIC. 

The French foreign minister accompanied him and also visited Fiji, a first for such a minister. [15] Another point of grievance is the negative impact of French nuclear testing in Polynésie Française, the last test occurring in 1996. French President de Gaulle had himself physically witnessed a nuclear test in 1966 in New Hebrides, which at that time was a French colony. [16]

Relatedly, and perhaps of greatest import, is that France must address the colonial challenges that persist: The 2018 ascension of its two largest Pacific holdings to full members of the PIF, which was built with an emphasis on decolonization, generated controversy concerning French involvement in Pacific affairs. This could be said to be diluting a historic Pacific call, especially because dependency foreign policy must involve their sovereign. It had to contend with Pacific Island leaders and the local indigenous Kanak who supported the delay of a third referendum on independence in Nouvelle Calédonie at the end of 2021 due to the fallout from a wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Pro-independence figures boycotted the vote.) PICs have also pushed for and in 2013 succeeded in bringing about the re-admission of Polynésie Française on the UN list of non-self-governing territories. Going back further, and in connection to the previous analysis by this author, French authorities sent Amazigh dissidents to Nouvelle Calédonie due to a revolt that arose in 1871 in French-controlled Algeria, an Arab League country in northern Africa. [17] 

Trip Digest

The French president’s July 2023 trip to Nouvelle Calédonie included a military parade and a fighter jet flyover, as well as a meeting that was to include pro- and anti-independence figures (although there were pro-independence actors who did not show up). [18] In a speech, Macron made clear that the territory was French and issued a threat that an independent Nouvelle Calédonie with a Chinese military base would not be condoned. [19] Such a threat continues the trend of bringing the Indo-Pacific into the PIF realm and is backed up by his statement that more military resources would be provided to the territory. Nevertheless, he also extended a hand of consensus and moving forward, and in his visit to Vanuatu he spoke against “new imperialisms,” presenting France as an upholder of sovereignty. [20] The French president also spoke about developing a Pacific region university exchange program. [21] In Papua New Guinea, Macron underlined climate and military security commitments. [22]

PICs are experiencing increased international attention. They must tread cautiously as countries, including France, step up their Pacific role.

11. REFERENCES. USE THE CHICAGO STYLE FOR ENDNOTES AND ALSO ANY MAPS OR CHARTS. Use Calibri 12 single-spaced inside paragraphs, with 1.5 spaces between paragraphs.

[1] Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. “Non-Self-Governing Territories | The United Nations and Decolonization.” United Nations, 2023. https://www.un.org/dppa/decolonization/en/nsgt.

[2] Grare, F. “France, the Other Indo-Pacific Power.” Carnegie Endowment, October 21, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/10/21/france-other-indo-pacific-power-pub-83000.

[3] McLellan, N. “France and the Blue Pacific.” Wiley Online Library, April 18, 2018. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/app5.228.

[4] This can be traced to Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s and François Mitterand in the 1980s. (Frécon, E. “France’s Third Path for the Indo-Pacific? Credentials and Challenges.” ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, 2022. https://www.iseas.edu.sg/articles-commentaries/iseas-perspective/2022-12-frances-third-path-for-the-indo-pacific-credentials-and-challenges-by-eric-frecon/).

[5] Ibid.

[6] McLellan, N. “France and the Blue Pacific.” Wiley Online Library, April 18, 2018. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/app5.228.

[7] Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. “France Diplomatie.” https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/, 2021. https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/en_dcp_a4_indopacifique_022022_v1-4_web_cle878143.pdf.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Frécon, E. “France’s Third Path for the Indo-Pacific? Credentials and Challenges.” ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, 2022. https://www.iseas.edu.sg/articles-commentaries/iseas-perspective/2022-12-frances-third-path-for-the-indo-pacific-credentials-and-challenges-by-eric-frecon/).

[10] This is the Pacific Quad, made up of France, Australia, New Zealand and the US. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) consists of Australia, India, Japan, and the US.

[11] Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. “France Diplomatie.” https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/, 2021. https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/en_dcp_a4_indopacifique_022022_v1-4_web_cle878143.pdf.

[12] It also offers EU Member States an advantage by being the only such state to have an embassy on the PIC Vanuatu. (Bondaz, Antoine. “Pacnet #55 – France as an ‘Enhancer of Sovereignty’ in the Pacific Islands.” Pacific Forum, July 25, 2023. https://pacforum.org/publication/pacnet-55-france-as-an-enhancer-of-sovereignty-in-the-pacific-islands.)

[13] Kraft, J. “Pacific: Fact Sheets on the European Union: European Parliament.” Fact Sheets on the European Union | European Parliament, April 2023. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/175/pacific#_ftn1.

[14] PIF Secretariat. “France.” Pacific Islands Forum, 2023. https://www.forumsec.org/france/.

[15] Foon, Eleisha. “Macron in New Caledonia to Bolster France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.” RNZ, July 25, 2023. https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/494437/macron-in-new-caledonia-to-bolster-france-s-indo-pacific-strategy.

[16] Wasuka, Evan. “French president wants new status for New Caledonia along with increased military presence.” 27 July 2023 in Pacific Beat. ABC Podcast. 43 minutes. Speaking with: McLellan, Nic.

[17] Douah, C, and M Godin. “The Algerians of New Caledonia.” New Lines Magazine, May 1, 2022. https://newlinesmag.com/essays/the-algerians-of-new-caledonia/.

[18] McLellan, Nic. “Macron Begins Melanesia Tour in New Caledonia.” Islands Business, July 25, 2023. https://islandsbusiness.com/news-break/macron-begins-melanesia-tour/.

[19] Euronews, with AFP. “Emmanuel Macron Insists New Caledonia Belongs to France out of Choice.” euronews, July 26, 2023. https://www.euronews.com/2023/07/26/emmanuel-macron-insists-new-caledonia-belongs-to-france-out-of-choice.

[20] Euronews, with AFP. “French President Macron Denounces ‘new Imperialism’ in Pacific.” euronews, 2023. https://www.euronews.com/2023/07/27/french-president-macron-travels-to-vanuatu-for-historic-visit-and-warns-against-new-imperi.

[21] Editor. “France to Expand Mobile Force in Vanuatu.” PINA, July 31, 2023. https://pina.com.fj/2023/07/31/france-to-expand-mobile-force-in-vanuatu/.

[22] Editor. “Macron’s Visit Fruitful: PNG Marape.” PINA, July 31, 2023. https://pina.com.fj/2023/07/31/macrons-visit-fruitful-png-marape/.

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