The fear moments have marked some notable points in Australian history. The fear of what the French were up to in the region was one of the external factors that produced a highly unusual moment—when the six Australian states managed to agree on something big, the creation of the Commonwealth. Another notable fear moment was the frenzy of Francophobia which surged through Australia in the 1970s during the French nuclear tests in the South Pacific.
The wrangle with France caused a boycott of all things French—and produced one of the great Gough Whitlam stories, as recounted by Geoff Barker. The editor of The Age, Graham Perkin, with Geoff in tow, travelled to Kirribilli House for lunch with the Prime Minister. As the meal began, several bottles of French wine were presented to Whitlam. ‘Jesus, Gough,’ expostulated Perkin, ‘you can’t drink French wine’. ‘Never fear, comrade’, replied Gough, ‘as it passes my lips it becomes Australian’.
Extending the Whitlam transformation principle, still a key question about the French role in the Pacific is whether the French can become accepted as a local rather than an external presence. The issue of what the French can and will be in the South Pacific runs through Denise Fisher’s new book, France in the South Pacific: Power and Politics.
Fisher is a former Australian diplomat who served as Consul-General in New Caledonia. She has produced what will be a ‘go to’ reference for anyone thinking or writing about the French in the South Pacific—and, indeed, anyone contemplating the future of the region. The book can be downloaded here and is another example of the gems regularly published by the ANU epress.
As Fisher writes, cracks are appearing in the French structures and it’s not even clear that ‘France will remain in the region or, if so, on what terms’. The final two chapters of the book look at French motivations in the Pacific and its future roles, built around a discussion of the question: ‘Will France stay in the Pacific and, if so, why, and how?’
The answer: ‘As in most key areas of France’s presence in the Pacific throughout history, ambiguity is rife’. That word ‘ambiguity’ keeps appearing. As Fisher writes, France’s behaviour is sometimes that of a power ‘in’ the Pacific, while at other times France can be a power ‘of’ the Pacific:
The language that France uses when talking about the Pacific is at best ambiguous over whether it sees itself as an outsider or as a resident South Pacific power with strategic interests stemming from that presence.
Australia has plenty of reasons to look beyond the old aches of Francophobia to see a France that can be a power of the Pacific. Fiji has demonstrated anew that Australia is always a status quo power in the Pacific, but isn’t always able to act as the regional power that gets all it wants. France, too, has the potential to be a most useful status quo supporter. As Fisher notes:
In crude terms, if the French were to leave, there would be three more potentially fragile island economies on Australia’s doorstep, and considerable demands on Australia’s diplomatic energy and resources to ensure their development and stability appropriate for its domestic security. Australia and New Zealand together could never match the over $A4.6 billion per year that France has put into its Pacific entities. Without these inputs, there would be an inevitable weakening of these economies, with resultant security vulnerabilities for the region, and Australia.
The key to France’s future is to be found in New Caledonia and the critical deadlines set by the Noumea Accord. And those deadlines start arriving next year.
The Matignon Accords of 1988 and the Noumea Accord of 1998 have had deep influence on Australian thinking about other independence issues 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.
John Howard again invoked the Matignon model in his famous (or notorious) letter to Indonesia’s President B.J.Habibie, on the future of East Timor. The mecurial Habibie wouldn’t embrace a process that would last decades and instead put the issue to an immediate vote when—to the amazement of Jakarta’s elite—East Timor dashed through flames to grab independence.
Both New Caledonia and Bougainville are supposed to be entering the end game; the decision moment of their drawn-out processes. Papua New Guinea shows every sign of wanting to delay any vote as long as possible. Indeed, the Port Moresby position seems to be that if it doesn’t think too much about the Bougainville timetable, it doesn’t have to stick to it. So the working out of New Caledonia’s future under the Noumea Accord will matter nearly as much for Australia and PNG as it will for France.
New Caledonia led the way into the decades of preparation; now it must demonstrate if such a process can ever be finalised. Whether success or failure, what Frances does in New Caledonia will have a huge demonstration effect for PNG and Bougainville. And that resolution will say much about whether France can become more than an outside power in the South Pacific, defined as much by ambiguity as any ambition.
The former Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, and the French Ambassador to Australia, Stephane Romatet, will launch Denise Fisher’s book in Canberra at the Australian Institute of International Affairs on September 24.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Stephan Roletto.