FRANCE TO STEP UP PACIFIC OVERTURES

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‘Good to have strengthened relationship’

By Patrick Antoine Decloitre

SUVA, Fiji (Oceania Flash, Aug. 29, 2008) – The French government has indicated it wants to step up what it calls the "integration" process of its three French Pacific dependencies (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna) into their regional environment, the Pacific region.

The integration process began several years ago, on a gradual basis and in the past few years has materialised through the Pacific Islands forum grating New Caledonia and French Polynesia a newly-created "associate member" status.

Last week, Presidents of New Caledonia and French Polynesia, Harold Martin and Gaston Tong Sang, were also leading their respective delegations at the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders summit in Niue.

Wallis and Futuna also sent a delegation, even though its request to get the associate member status was put on hold for the next two years.

Also present last week at the Forum summit was a significant delegation from metropolitan France.

The delegation was led by Mr Nicolas Desforges, the Permanent Secretary to the French government's assistant minister for Overseas, Yves Jégo.

It also included Paris-based French Ambassador to the Pacific, Patrick Roussel who is also in charge of the so-called "Pacific Fund" that is dedicated to promoting better integration of the French territories in the Pacific region.

Other members of the Paris also included officials from the French Foreign Affairs ministry's Pacific section and Wellington-based French Ambassador Michel Legras.

Just back from the Pacific region, the French government officials and diplomats were once again this week in "Pacific mode", this time in Paris: the occasion was a roundtable held at the French ministry for Overseas.

Wednesday's "France-Oceania" meeting was chaired by French State Secretary for Overseas countries and territories, Yves Jégo, with the French High commissioners and Administrators in the three French Pacific dependencies (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna), all Ambassadors posted in the region, as well as officials from several French government ministries, in attendance.

"I think it's good to have a strengthened relationship (with the Pacific neighbours). There already is some cooperation, but now we want to build on this more and more. I suppose this is simply what one calls globalisation. This means more cooperation and a greater involvement of our overseas territories in their regional environment", Jégo told the French Overseas Network.

However, some diplomats participating in the debate stressed the need, more than ever, for French Pacific territories to put a special emphasis on explaining to their neighbours who they were and what they were about.

Wellington-based French Ambassador Michel Legras is one of them.

"We really need to get the message across, in particular in New Zealand because this is where I am posted, about what those territories of French Polynesia and New Caledonia are in essence. Because you just can't take it for granted. And I suppose the best way of achieving this would be to have members of Parliament, personalities of French Polynesia and New Caledonia, to come and visit New Zealand and Australia. I think it's really important to create a regular movement of such visits so (those territories) can explain in their own words what they are, what they want and how they intend to develop themselves", Legras stressed.

French relations with the Pacific Islands Forum have intensified over the past two years and the recent "France-Oceania" summit held in Paris in June 2006 under the chairmanship of then French President Jacques Chirac.

The third such summit is also scheduled to take place sometime in August-September 2009, in Nouméa, New Caledonia, probably in the presence of France's President Nicolas Sarkozy.

This week's meeting was also perceived to be in preparation for the Nouméa summit next year.

Last week, in the wake of the Forum leaders' summit in Niue, a statement from the French Foreign Affairs said that last week's summit "confirmed the cooperation that has successfully been put in place between the 16 Pacific Island States… and that cover some 37 percent of the area of our planet… in order to bring a concerted response to the challenge they face: energy security marked by the cost of fuel, which is especially detrimental to the small island States, food security and above all, the consequences of climate change that endanger the very existence of some Pacific islands".

At the regional level, the three French Pacific countries and territories, New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna last week also sent to Niue significant delegations.

New Caledonia's delegation was led by the French Pacific territory's President of the local government, Harold Martin.

Martin was also accompanied by his Vice-President, Mrs Déwé Gorodey, as well as two members of his cabinet, namely Maurice Ponga [youth and sports] and Pierre Ngaiohni [vocational training].

In a speech delivered last week during the plenary session of the summit, he stressed "common values" in the Pacific Islands, such as dialogue.

Martin also held a one-to-one meeting with French Polynesian counterpart Gaston Tong Sang, both leaders coming out of their talks saying they also wanted to strengthen ties between New Caledonia and French Polynesia, including on the economic level.

They also expressed support to the movement of regional integration and regional cooperation.

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