Nic Maclellan is co-author of La France dans le Pacifique and After Moruroa: France in the South Pacific.
Denise Fisher's post on the re-inscription of French Polynesia on the UN list of non-self-governing territories underplays efforts by French diplomats to scuttle the resolution at the UN General Assembly.
As detailed in my report on the re-inscription campaign, the outgoing President of French Polynesia, Oscar Manutahi Temaru, wrote to French President Francois Hollande in March, asking him to rein in the French diplomats who were seeking to delay discussion of the UN resolution. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with fury to the General Assembly's consensus decision on 17 May, claiming that the resolution was 'a high jacking of the decolonisation principles established by the United Nations.'
Although France presents itself as a neutral umpire in New Caledonia and French Polynesia, arbitrating between supporters and opponents of independence, the reaction from Paris suggests that the French Government remains resolutely opposed to any internationally-supervised process of self-determination for the Maohi people.
As detailed in previous posts to The Interpreter, there are plenty of signs that France is settling in as a colonial power in the region, shown by the deployment of military forces and exploration for deep sea marine resources.
Last week, French Polynesia's Senator Richard Ariihau Tuheiava told the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation that the issue of self-determination is not a matter for internal French politics: 'It is within the purview of the General Assembly alone to determine whether a territory is non-self-governing within the scope of the UN Charter. It was never meant that such a decision was to be made by the administering power alone, despite their protestations.'
The Gillard Government has given verbal support for self-determination for the Maohi people but constantly reaffirmed its reservations about Oscar Temaru's push for re-inscription at the UN. In an interview in 2012, Australia's former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles described France as a long-term stable democratic partner in the Pacific, and outlined Australia's attitude to UN re-inscription: 'We absolutely take our lead from France on this.'
The angry French reaction to the UN resolution on French Polynesia is all the more important given looming changes in New Caledonia.
The Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), the independence coalition in New Caledonia, is gaining more active support from its fellow Melanesia Spearhead Group (MSG) members, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu (the FLNKS, rather than the government of New Caledonia, is a full member of the MSG). Last January, MSG Secretary General Peter Forau stated: 'The Kanaks need the help of the MSG now more than ever. They are at a critical point of achieving independence. It is now within their grasp and the MSG needs to be there with them to fulfil that dream.'
The MSG will hold its next summit in Noumea in mid-June, with FLNKS spokesperson Victor Tutugoro taking over as chair of the sub-regional body at a crucial time. Under the Noumea Accord, New Caledonia is moving towards a decision on its political status after Congressional elections in 2014, with a possible referendum on self-determination to be held before 2019.
One reason the MSG is taking a more active role in support of the FLNKS is the perception among MSG members that the Pacific Islands Forum is less assertive in supporting decolonisation in the region, because its largest members, Australia and New Zealand, have been reluctant to challenge French policy in the region.
Leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum face some serious discussions about the Forum's relationship with the US and French territories. The 2005 Pacific Plan for Regional Co-operation and Integration is under review, setting new priorities for regional integration. The review team led by former PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta visited New Caledonia and French Polynesia as well as the independent Forum member states, and will present its report to Forum leaders when they meet in the Marshall Islands in September.
Given that Forum leaders gather in Majuro a week before Australia’s elections in September, Prime Minister Gillard is unlikely to attend and our role in discussions may be a bit constrained. But whoever wins the elections in September, the issue of self-determination in the Pacific is back on the regional agenda.
Photo by Flickr user launceston_lad.