Australia’s long dread of France in the South Pacific (part 2)
20 Feb 2017|


Image courtesy of Flickr user Blue Mountains Local Studies.

The argument stretches over decades: can France stay in the South Pacific and, if so, on what terms? Being in the Pacific may serve the glory of France, but can France also act as a member of the Pacific?

When the war of words between Paris and Canberra was at its height in the 1980s, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Bill Hayden, crystallised a core proposition: Australia, he said, would be in the South Pacific forever, but you couldn’t necessarily say the same for France.

Hayden’s skepticism was grounded in a period when France seemed intent on ‘blowing up’ any hope of regional belonging—from nuclear tests to sabotage blasts in Auckland harbour. The France that went rogue and sank the Rainbow Warrior in 1985, killing photographer Fernando Pereira, has spent the following 30 years slowly adjusting its Pacific colours to try to become a different sort of regional warrior.

Grappling with that question of whether France can belong, Denise Fisher writes: ‘As in most key areas of France’s presence in the Pacific throughout history, ambiguity is rife’. That word ‘ambiguity’ keeps appearing. As Fisher notes, France’s behaviour is sometimes that of a power ‘in’ the Pacific, while at other times France can be a power ‘of’ the Pacific. New Caledonia’s vote next year will say much about whether France can be ‘of’ as well as ‘in’ the region. This is another three decade story.

After intermittent violence in New Caledonia through the 1980s, the moment of truth for the territory came in 1988. Members of the Kanak independence movement seized hostages on the island of Ouvea and demanded talks on independence. The fortnight siege from 22 April to 5 May—costing 25 lives—was broken by a military assault. To be a journalist in Noumea during this fraught period was to report on a society tearing at its own soul, peering into the abyss of civil war.

The Kanak leaders were urbanely French in language, manner and argument, but they wanted New Caledonia remade to serve Kanak identity, not French glory. Out of that tragic moment came the Matignon Agreements signed in June 1988, by the Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, deferring the issue of independence for a decade. They were succeeded by the Noumea Accords with a 20 year timeline. For his leadership in stepping back from the brink, Tjibaou was assassinated the following year by a fellow Kanak.

The Matignon and Noumea Accords have allowed France to play a long game. Tjibaou, the independence leader, legitimised an autonomy process Paris could use to seek permanence, not departure.

Now, the moment for decision approaches. One parallel between 1988 and 2018 is that each date with destiny is framed by the French presidential election calendar. Next year’s vote is the moment of decision that eventually arrives for any peace process seeking to salve deep differences with lots of time and cash.

The New Caledonia Accords have influenced Australian thinking about other independence issues—as well as altering Canberra’s assessment of France’s capacity to stay in the region.

The Bougainville settlement brokered by New Zealand and carried through by Australia was an Anglo version of Matignon—the deferral of the immediate decision on independence as a means to stop conflict and embark on a long period of preparation and development.

Prime Minister John Howard invoked the Matignon model in his famous and notorious letter to Indonesia’s President B.J. Habibie on 19 December 1998, on the future of East Timor. Howard’s letter stressed Australia’s continuing support for Indonesia’s sovereignty in East Timor. Reflecting what Canberra thought France had achieved over the Matignon decade, Howard said Habibie’s offer of autonomy could become part of a lengthy process ‘to convince the East Timorese of the benefits of autonomy within the Indonesian Republic’.

The aim, Howard wrote, should be to avoid ‘an early and final decision of the future status of the province. One way of doing that would be to build into the autonomy package a review mechanism along the line of the Matignon Accords in New Caledonia. The Matignon Accords have enabled a compromise political solution to be implemented while deferring a referendum on the final status of New Caledonia for many years.’ The Howard letter illustrated Australia’s judgement that the Matignon/Noumea Accords delivered Kanak autonomy but could keep New Caledonia as part of France; Indonesia should take the same lengthy route to retain what it wanted.

Ten days before Howard wrote to Habibie, on 9 November 1998, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, had warmly welcomed the New Caledonia referendum that strongly endorsed the Noumea Accord, stating:

‘A positive vote of over 70% and the high voter turnout demonstrate that New Caledonians want to assume greater responsibility for their own destiny. The result will maintain the impetus of political and social development in New Caledonia and help France to continue its constructive role in New Caledonia and the Pacific.’

Downer’s line about France maintaining its constructive role in the Pacific has become the new Canberra mantra. The South Pacific thinks France has rid itself of the habit of blowing things up. The Oz dread of France in the Pacific that ran through the 20th Century has faded. The dread has turn to desire…