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Push coincides with troop withdrawals in French Polynesia

By Nic Maclellan SUVA, Fiji (Islands Business Magazine, Nov. 2009 Issue) - In 1898, as the United States expanded across the Pacific seeking naval bases in Hawai’i and Guam, the US Navy monitored the military forces of other colonial powers in the Pacific.

The New York Times edition of November 26, 1898 carried a report headlined ‘French naval base in the Pacific’.

"The French government has decided to make Nouméa, capital of the French colony of New Caledonia, its naval headquarters in the Pacific. A large dock and naval works will be based there."

One hundred and ten years later, following a Defence White Paper, French authorities have reaffirmed the choice of Nouméa as the regional base for France’s military operations in the Pacific.

Defence white paper

At the same time, Australia and France are negotiating an agreement to use each other’s military facilities in the region as part of a broader Defence Co-operation Agreement which came into force in July.

After his election in 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for a Defence White Paper to study priorities for France’s global military network.

The 2008 White Paper paid little attention to the Pacific region, but noted there will be reductions of personnel in France’s overseas dependencies: "military forces in French Polynesia, the West Indies and New Caledonia will be reduced and rationalised."According to French military officials, most of the cuts in the Pacific will affect French Polynesia rather than New Caledonia, as Paris closes down the bases used for nuclear testing in past decades.

Last year, France’s top military officer in New Caledonia General Martial de Braquilanges said: "While some heavy blows will fall on French Polynesia and the French Antilles, New Caledonia will be relatively spared from the cuts, first at the level of its operational capacity and then at the level of numbers of troops."

French military personnel in New Caledonia—the Forces armées de Nouvelle-Calédonie (FANC)—currently number about 3000.Under the Defence White Paper, New Caledonia could see a 15 to 20 percent reduction in these numbers over the next three years.

While there will still be some forces in French Polynesia in the coming years, including planes and ships to monitor its 5-million square kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone, most of France’s military assets in the Pacific will be based in New Caledonia after 2011.

Concern from FLNKS

When he visited Nouméa in September 2008, French Defence Minister Hervé Morin stressed that this increases, rather than weaken New Caledonia’s strategic importance for France.

"We have decided to make New Caledonia the base for the defence of the Pacific because we have a number of high quality facilities here and we are undertaking an extremely important military co-operation with Australia.

"It’s therefore here in New Caledonia that certain key functions will be maintained and from here, a number of intervention forces could be deployed, for example if French Polynesia had a need for extra military units. New Caledonia will therefore lose some 100-150 personnel, but will serve as our military base in the Pacific." Currently France maintains a number of military facilities in New Caledonia, including:

The new Alleyron headquarters at Pointe Artillerie, opened in October 2008, which provides the command and operational headquarters for FANC

The Nandai military base at Plum for the RIMAP infantry regiment.

The Gally-Passebosc barracks in Nouméa.

The Pointe Chaleix naval base, which hosts the French Navy’s small naval contingent.

The Air Force base at Tontouta, with the ETOM overseas transport squadron, helicopters and the air wing of the gendarmerie police.

New Caledonia’s government has no say over defence policy and the relocation of military forces from Papeéte to Nouméa.

Under the 1998 Nouméa Accord, control of defence and foreign policy remains with the French state until the referendum on New Caledonia’s future political status. Scheduled to be held after 2014, this referendum will decide whether Paris will cede these "sovereign powers" to the government and people of New Caledonia.

France’s new armed forces commander in Nouméa has suggested that the military aims to be present in New Caledonia for the long run. In an interview after taking office in August, Brigadier General Olivier Tramond told Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes: "Looking out to 2020, New Caledonia has been called on to act as a support base in the Pacific. Even if the defence infrastructure has been reduced, it will be maintained."

Some members of the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak at Socialiste (FLNKS) are concerned that decisions taken about France’s military presence in New Caledonia will impact on the decision about the territory’s future political status.

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