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Canberra talks part of ‘regional integration’ effort

By Patrick Antoine Decloitre

SUVA, Fiji (Oceania Flash, March 2, 2010) –A high-powered delegation from New Caledonia is scheduled to visit Australia next week, as part of moves to accelerate a long-initiated process of "regional integration".

The delegation will be headed by New Caledonian government President, Philippe Gomès, who will also be flanked by French High Commissioner Yves Dassonville, the French Embassy in Canberra said in a release late last week.

The visit will take place from March 8 to 12 and is said to respond to an invitation from Australian foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith.

During their visit, the French Pacific leaders will hold a series of meeting, including with members of the Australian federal government and parliament.

They are also scheduled to meet French business leaders established in Australia, as well as members of the French community, especially in Sydney.

Talks are to include an update on New Caledonia’s developments, including on the political scene, as part of an ongoing process of emancipation and autonomy defined in the Nouméa Accord, signed in 1998 between pro-France, pro-independence and the French government.

The Accord, since, has been regarded as a sort of blueprint for New Caledonia’s future, with a scheduled referendum on self-determination to be held some time between 2014 and 2018.

It also insists on the notion of power-sharing in government and a proportional representation of parties, according to their number of seats in the French territory’s parliament, the Congress.

As part of this regional integration process, Australia has always been regarded as New Caledonia’s largest neighbour in the Pacific region.

Moves for a rapprochement were initiated more than a decade ago, especially on the military front with a growing number of joint operations, exercises, between the Australian Defence Force and the French military in New Caledonia, the FANC.

There have also been several official visits on both side, including, in New Caledonia, from Australian Foreign Affairs and Secretaries for the Pacific Affairs.

Talks had then focused on Australia’s perception and support for New Caledonia’s autonomy process, under the Nouméa, which Australia has consistently regarded as a "factor of stability" in an otherwise turbulent Melanesian region.

New Caledonia pleads for "regional integration"

In October 2009, New Caledonia’s power-sharing government President , Philippe Gomès, while addressing for the first in years the United Nations Decolonisation Committee, expressed the wish that the French Pacific territory could "find its place" within MSG.

"Besides the voice of France, we also need to make our own voice heard in the region", Gomès said in New York

"That is why my government has engaged the necessary steps so that New Caledonia becomes a full member of certain regional organisations, such as the Pacific Islands Forum and the Melanesian Spearhead Group" (at which FLNKS sits), he announced.

"The government has also decided to impulse bilateral cooperation with Melanesian countries in order to significantly reinforce New Caledonia’s actions in its region".

Gomès recalled that on the regional front and following a process described as "regional integration", New Caledonia (just like French Polynesia, another French Pacific dependency) has now become an "associate member" of the Pacific Islands Forum, but that it now intended to go further and initiate moves to request a full membership in the regional political organisation.

"Finally, as the Nouméa Accord allows, the government has decided to set up New Caledonian representations in the Pacific island countries. Initially, these antennas could be hosted within the French embassies of the region, including in Vanuatu, in Fiji, in Papua New Guinea, in Australia and in New Zealand. With this view in mind, my government, in consultation with (France), will organise a specific training in order to prepare New Caledonians to take charge of their international relations".

French President Sarkozy's support

In November 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy signalled a new approach from Paris towards its overseas departments, countries and territories, including those located in the Pacific.

Speaking at the end of a special "cross-ministerial" meeting which itself resulted from eight months of public consultations, Sarkozy announced a series of some 137 measures aimed at providing a new basis in the relationship between metropolitan France and its overseas components.

Sarkozy also deplored "the difficulties" French overseas countries and territories seemed to be facing to "insert themselves in their regional environment, which nevertheless bears strong potential".

"It is quite astounding to see that, in order to enter French Polynesia when you live in one of the many surrounding (Pacific) Island States, one has to apply for a short term visa at the local French Consulate, when there is one. Let me remind you that French Polynesia is located four thousand kilometres away from Auckland, six thousand from Los Angeles or Sydney. What are we afraid of? The risk of a massive illegal immigration is, you will agree, rather limited when the nearest border is located four thousand kilometres away! I am therefore announcing that, with effect on December 1 of this year, we will considerably soften the regime of some 130 visas, in order to facilitate the movement of persons with the concerned geographical zones", the French Head of State told the audience.

Involve more locals in diplomatic matters

He also hinted at a higher involvement French overseas local in French foreign affairs, because of their "specific knowledge of their direct environment".

"Which diplomat can explain to (French) Polynesians … the way he thinks they should conduct their relationship with their neighbours without even listening to them first?", the French President said.

"This relationship of defiance between metropolitan France and its Overseas, under the excuse that diplomacy would be too serious a matter to be left to those who live it on a daily basis, this is over… This is why I wish to allow our regional communities to take part in those international negotiations that concern them, and even to represent France, under mandate, in the regional cooperation organisations of their geographical zone", he said.

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