Welcome back, Your Excellency, urgent questions await you – .

Welcome back, Your Excellency, urgent questions await you – .

His Excellency the Ambassador,
Your return to Canberra is welcome. Reconnecting with Australia after the understandable injury from the “stab in the back” will take time. But, if I can have the audacity to suggest it, it’s time to move on to the more urgent subject of New Caledonia, its worsening situation from Covid-19 and its vote for independence. This issue presents an increased risk of affecting regional power relations. Australia and France must urgently seek common ground in the Pacific.

As you will undoubtedly explain to the local interlocutors, France is a powerhouse of the Pacific. It has three territories – New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia – a population of over 560,000 citizens and significant investments in the region. Its military presence of 2,840 men, nine planes and seven ships stationed in Noumea and Papeete enables France to assume the security responsibilities of a resident power.

Not so long ago, in 2018, President Emmanuel Macron, on his way to Noumea, unveiled France’s Indo-Pacific strategy on the Garden Island naval base in Sydney, signaling Australia’s will to do one of France’s key partners in its effort to “help make the Indo-Pacific a free, safe and open space”.

Unfortunately, these grand intentions can now be reassessed.

France’s departure from Melanesia would affect regional power relations.

Yes, on September 15, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States entered into a New Security Pact (AUKUS), which torpedoed France’s $ 90 billion submarine contract with the Australia for a pledge to build nuclear powered ships with America and Britain. The announcement, and the way it was delivered, left Paris infuriated. Indeed, France reminded you and your counterpart in Washington, not only in reaction to the loss of the contract, but to protest against the betrayal of trust.

However, the situation unfolding in New Caledonia requires rebuilding this confidence, and this urgently.

On December 12, French territory will return to the polls for the third and final self-determination referendum, amid an upsurge in Covid-19 cases and the recent appeal for help to the French army launched by the local government . The first referendum took place in 2018 and was rejected by 56.7% of the eligible population, while the second held in 2020 was rejected by 53.3%. With the increase in the youth vote, among the native Kanaks in particular, this next vote should approach the 50-50 mark.

What would happen if New Caledonia decided to become independent remains to be defined. But the recent “Discussions on the institutional future of New Caledonia” from the French overseas ministry suggest that if the “Yes“Wins, France would say”goodbyeUnless an agreement is reached between Paris and the newly formed country of Kanaky New Caledonia.

France’s departure from Melanesia would affect regional power relations.

New Caledonia votes in a second independence referendum on October 4, 2020. Independence was only rejected by a narrow majority of 53.3% (Theo Rouby / AFP via Getty Images)

The submarine contract was more than a simple source of income for France, it was emblematic of Franco-Australian cooperation in the Pacific. The loss of New Caledonia, of its cultural wealth, of its nickel reserves, of its maritime zone and of its membership of the Pacific Islands Forum would leave Paris with a much diminished voice in the Pacific. The independence of New Caledonia could also strengthen the independence movements in French Polynesia.

This decreasing presence potentially opens the door to China. According to a recent report by the French Institute for Strategic Research at the École Militaire, France’s exit would pave the way for Beijing’s strong financial and political interest in an independent Kanakian New Caledonia – similar to that experienced in Vanuatu, the Fiji, Samoa. and Papua New Guinea.

Combined with Australia’s breach of trust, these mounting pressures may be just enough for France to forgo renewed engagement in the region.

It would be a mistake.

If New Caledonia is a key pivot of France’s Indo-Pacific strategy, France grandeur in the Pacific is also based on developing and strengthening partnerships.

Most importantly, France and Australia listen to and support the voices of the region.

I would say that the current diplomatic crisis caused by the decision of the submarines is an opportunity for France and Australia to reset and rethink their cooperation.

In an effort to build bridges, Australia could foster trilateral cooperation, exchanges and collaboration with French territories and the region. These cultural, scientific and economic exchanges would both strengthen France’s Pacific strategy while aligning itself with Australia’s Pacific Step-up.

In the absence of a new defense cooperation agreement with an independent Kanaky New Caledonia, French military forces will likely leave the territory. This could represent an opportunity for Australia to temporarily house these forces to some extent.

Australia could also seek to provide France with defense purchases related to the Pacific in order to maintain the defense relationship. For example, Australia’s “Pacific Maritime Security Program” and France’s recently launched “South Pacific Coast Guard Network” could seek synergies to better collaborate and perhaps complement both in terms of capacity or of know-how.

Mr. Ambassador, I agree, canceling the sub contract was a tough pill to swallow. Keeping France in the dark about the decision, despite apparent months of planning, added to the bitterness. But what is most important is that France and Australia listen to and support the voices of the region – even if this means that the countries of the Pacific have chosen a different path. Given the challenges of the Pacific, Australia and France must overcome their discord to redefine and rebuild bilateral relations again.


A French in Australia.


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