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By Patrick Antoine Decloitre

NOUMEA, New Caledonia (Oceania Flash, June 23) - The French Pacific countries of New Caledonia and French Polynesia "will become associate members of the Pacific Islands Forum" and the tiny French territory of Wallis and Futuna will gain observer status within the regional organisation, French minister for overseas territories François Baroin said on Thursday in Paris.

Speaking to Pacific journalists at a press conference ahead of a "France-Oceania" summit to be held on Monday at the French Presidential office, under the chairmanship of Jacques Chirac, Baroin appeared positive on an imminent progression of the three French Pacific dependencies within the Forum, which groups sixteen Pacific Island independent States.

All of the Forum member countries are expected to attend the Paris meeting next week, either at head of government or ministerial levels.

New Caledonia and French Polynesia have gained observer status within the Forum respectively in 1999 and 2004. Last year, during the Forum leaders' summit in Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea), the regional organisation has also heralded a more open approach to the non-sovereign Pacific countries and territories, including the French ones.

This open door policy has translated into an offer for those entities to join, if they wished, a newly-created "associate member" status.

Both New Caledonia and French Polynesia are understood to have taken up this offer and initiated moves to officially apply to the new status, with the support of the French government.

Wallis and Futuna, the third French Pacific territory, would on its part officially enter the Forum family by accessing the observer status, Baroin said.

"More and more, we are inciting our territories to enter regional cooperation agreements with neighbouring countries. I believe our countries and territories' development can only happen through their better insertion in the region. Therefore this summit next week is also a reflection on French presence in the Pacific", he said. "Practically, on how they can better integrate, there is for example a cooperation agreement that will also be signed on Monday between New Caledonia and Vanuatu.

"France, on its part," he continued, "should become a privileged Forum partner and therefore take part in annual meetings of what is the main political organisation of the region. This is still being discussed with our partners. But there is a will to allow (French) countries and territories to integrate even more in this part of the world."

France is currently part of the "post-Forum dialog" group of partners and already holds talks with the regional organisation, on a multilateral basis, straight after the Forum leaders' summit each year.

The post-Forum dialog partners are currently (and since the first such post-Forum talks) Canada, the United Kingdom, the People's Republic of China, France, Japan, the United States, the European Union (since 1991), South Korea (since1995), Malaysia (since 1997), Philippines (1999), Indonesia (2001) and India (2003).

Since 1993, the Forum has also moved to set up an informal dialog with Taiwan.

The Forum's full members are Australia, the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

"This summit on Monday illustrates the importance France places on stability in this region (…) In the Pacific region, also, France is the last representative of the European Union. And through our presence in the Pacific, we can help finance projects, through the EU. This is what I told recently the governments of Australia and New Zealand. The aim is to work more deeply on three axes: strengthening political stability in the region, strengthening economic development and protecting the environment", Baroin explained.

The France-Oceania summit, on Monday, will gather Pacific leaders, including the heads of governments of New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna.

Heads of regional organisations such as the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC, based in Nouméa, New Caledonia) will also travel to Paris for the occasion.

Greg Urwin, the secretary general of the Forum, is also expected to attend.

June 26, 2006

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