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Fall-out in the South Pacific

The price which France has had to pay for the decision to resume nuclear testing is not only global condemnation but also the possibility of losing its possessions in Polynesia. Bertil Lintner explores the implications of French actions on the region in both the long and short term.

When President Jacques Chirac announced on 13 June 1995 that he would break a moratorium on French nuclear tests, imposed by his predecessor in April 1992, he had probably not foreseen the international outrage that would ensue. Nearly all governments in the Pacific Rim condemned the decision, while trade unionists refused to handle French ships and aircraft, and consumers began boycotting French products. In French Polynesia itself, the resumption of the tests has revitalized the territory's independence movement. During 6/7 September, in the wake of the first test, the capital Papeete was rocked by violent demonstrations. France's heavy-handed response did little to improve an already tarnished image.

The price which France has had to pay for the decision to resume nuclear testing is not only global condemnation but also the possibility of losing its possessions in Polynesia. France's main protagonists in the region, Australia and New Zealand, are playing an important role in undermining France's foothold in the Pacific, for reasons which go far beyond concern over any physical damage that the tests may cause. In fact, France's decision to reassert itself as a nuclear power comes at a time when Australia especially is searching for a new regional role and a higher profile in Asian Pacific politics, trade and security.

France: global and nuclear

Some commentators argue that Paris' policy in the region is part of its design to assert France's sovereignty in the world, a policy which has not been modified since General Charles de Gaulle's reign in the 1960s. When France's first test was carried out on 13 February 1960, de Gaulle proclaimed that nuclear weapons would make "a bigger, prouder France". The deterrent - the 'force de frappe' - was aimed at preserving France's independence of the two major blocks at the time, as well as strengthening its role as a third power, allied with neither the USA nor the Soviet Union.

Today, it is evident that France does not want to be just another European nation troubled by unemployment, immigration and terrorism. This desire appears to have become especially prevalent since the reunification of Germany which has created a more populous and economically stronger power than France in the European Union. "We differ from other European countries in that we're a nuclear and global power", claimed Vice Admiral Philippe Euverte, supreme commander of the French forces in French Polynesia in a recent interview with JIR in Papeete.

While the UK has given up nearly all its colonies, France has retained control over a string of territories across the globe. Popularly referred to by the press as 'the confetti of the empire', these include the islands of St Pierre and Miquelon off the Atlantic coast of Canada; Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean; French Guiana in South America; French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna as well as New Caledonia in the Pacific; Mayotte off the coast of Africa; Reunion east of Madagascar; and the remote but strategically important Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean which, despite the lack of any permanent population, still boast a French military camp. As a result, France has maintained a presence in the oceans of the world from where it can monitor trouble spots or intervene directly, as it has done on several occasions in its former African colonies. Most recently, French legionnaires and commandos, based in Mayotte, crushed a coup attempt in the nearby Comoros Islands.

The most important links in France's global chain, however, are: the Kourou base, a former prison camp in French Guiana which in the 1960s was turned into a space research station; the Centre Spatial Guyanais; and the Centre d'Experimentation du Pacifique (CEP) in the Tuamotu archipelago of French Polynesia. The main nuclear base is on Moruroa (often misspelt Mururoa) atoll. Experiments have also been carried out on the nearby Fangataufa atoll, with the island of Hao in the same archipelago serving as military headquarters and logistics base. The 3200 m runway on Hao, is the longest in the Pacific and military aircraft take off from there for France, with a stop-over only at Martinique in the West Indies.

The immediate military requirements behind the tests may be to achieve the technology needed to replace further tests with simulation and, it is suspected, to certify the TN75 warheads for France's M45 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The submarines are seen by France as a vital element for maintaining peace and stability in Europe.

However, some observers go a step further than just highlighting France's perceptions of its own military role by saying that even its campaign to spread French culture, values and language abroad should be seen in the same context. Called 'cultural diplomacy', France has launched a vigorous campaign to promote itself and its culture internationally. According to a French government brochure, 'France's political and economic role in the world must rest on its cultural, linguistic and scientific presence ... [with the aim of bringing] together all the tools of the French cultural network abroad in a focused approach.' Even in a non-Francophone country like Thailand, 22 per cent of the entire co-operation budget is devoted to the teaching of French.

The problem, nevertheless, appears to be that most other countries do not share France's perception of its political, cultural and military importance in the world today. In Cambodia, enraged students at the Institute of Economics went on a rampage in 1994 when France insisted that French be the medium of instruction since the institute had been built with assistance from Paris; the students said they wanted to study English rather than the language of the former colonial power.

However, the most serious confrontation has occurred with Australia which has emerged as the most vocal critic of the resumption of French nuclear tests in the Pacific. Still having to deal with the aftereffects of nuclear contamination caused by British testing in the 1950s at Maralinga and the Emu Fields in the outback, few observers doubt the Australians' sincerity in opposing further tests in the AsiaPacific region. But Australia's anti-French stance is also caused by a number of other factors.

Australia: part of the eastern hemisphere

It is not only France that is attempting to assert a new, more powerful role for itself in the post-Cold War era. Equally importantly in a Pacific context, Australia is also struggling with its identity. Canberra has declared its intention to shed its colonial past by becoming a republic by the turn of the century. This, Australian leaders believe, will hasten their country's integration in the economically rapidly expanding Asia-Pacific region. While the country may wish to exaggerate its present role in the South Pacific, it is certainly a dominant regional power. It played an important role in the South Pacific Commission which was set up in 1947 by the then colonial powers as the first regional organization.

However, when issues such as decolonization and French nuclear testing came on the agenda - to be met with staunch opposition from France - Australia spearheaded the formation of the South Pacific Forum in 1971. The grouping, which now has 16 members, is open to any independent or self-governing territories in the South Pacific. During the Cold War, disagreements with France were kept on the back-burner but that has changed with the new world order. Recently, the forum took the radical step of excluding France from the list of dialogue partners, at least as long as the tests on Moruroa continue. Three members - Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati - even went as far as announcing their intentions to break off diplomatic ties with France.

On the other hand, France has been quick to exploit rifts within the organization. When Tonga seemed to waver in its support with anti-French rhetoric, the Pacific kingdom was quickly rewarded with a generous gift in the shape of a 2200 t Norwegian-built oil tanker and supply ship. This vessel had been used in French Polynesia for more than 20 years and was handed over to Tongan Prince Ulukalala Lavaka Ata at a grand ceremony in Papeete.

Despite such attempts at dividing the forum, the confrontation with Paris has prompted Australia to forge even closer ties with its immediate neighbours and pushed it further away from the UK which has refrained from criticizing France's nuclear testing programme. Disappointment with London's stand can be noticed even in traditionally pro-British New Zealand. In early October, both Australia and New Zealand hit out at the UK for refusing to speak out against the French. Nonetheless, the clash of interests in the Pacific is not likely to disappear even when France stops the tests next year and signs the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty which it has pledged to do. Although the Australian government does not openly declare that France should leave the Pacific altogether, the governing Australian Labor Party (ALP) has for years been a staunch supporter of Polynesian independence.

By the early 1980s, the then chairman of the party's international committee, Chris Schacht, tried to bring the issue of France's refusal to decolonize and demilitarize French Polynesia to the attention of the Socialist International. This was a shrewd move since France's then president was socialist Francois Mitterand. A resolution was dropped only when the French delegation threatened to withdraw from the International. Today, Schacht serves as minister for Small Business, Customs and Construction in the Australian cabinet, and still shares with many other ALP ministers a strong sympathy for Polynesia's independence movement.

French Polynesia: economic dependence on France

The decision to move nuclear testing from Algeria to the Pacific in 1962 was not without precedent: the USA had carried out nuclear experiments on Bikini, Eniwetok, Utirik and Rongelap in the Marshall Islands since the 1940s and 1950s, and both the USA and the UK used the Christmas and Palmyra Islands for the same purpose until the 1960s. An international airport was built at Faa'a outside Papeete in 1961, and the CEP was established to oversee the tests the following year. The first nuclear device was detonated in the sky above Moruroa on 2 July 1966, after which came another 43 atmospheric tests until they were moved underground in 1975.

With the influx of French military personnel and nuclear experts came massive construction on Moruroa, Fangataufa, the base at Hao and on Tahiti itself. Papeete became a boom town with up-market international hotels and stores. Soon, French Polynesia had the highest per capita income of all Pacific island territories. The minimum wage currently stands at US$978 per month, or more than the annual income for most wage earners in independent territories such as Tonga and Western Samoa. Total French government expenditure in the territory amounted to US$1350 million in 1993, covering everything from the constructions of schools and local airstrips to subsidising salaries for the about 23,000 civil servants, mostly French, who are paid 1.4 times the rate of their counterparts in France.

Much of this prosperity depends on the presence of the CEP which, during its heyday in the 1980s, provided 12.5 per cent of local employment, 55 per cent of French Polynesia's external financial aid and accounted for 22 per cent of the territory's GDP. Fear of losing all this 'nuclear welfare' has kept the majority of the voters in the territory in favour of continued association with France. However, most parties have always advocated local autonomy which was also granted under a special 'mini constitution' enacted in September 1984 and called 'Statut du Territoire de la Polynesie Francaise'.

The negative aspect of development since the early 1960s has been an almost total dependence on France. About 85 per cent of all foodstuff is imported and very little has been done to develop any indigenous industry apart from military and military-related installations. Pro-independence politicians complain that even the local university, built by the French in the 1970s, teaches only literature, foreign languages, French law and basic economics but not marine biology, oceanography and other sciences which would help the territory develop its own resources. More importantly, given the vast budget deficit and the enormous trade imbalance, the percentage rate of inflation in the territory should be running in the hundreds. In 1993, imports totalled US$1034 million while exports amounted to a mere US$263 million. But the local currency, the Central Pacific franc, remains stable because it is pegged at 5.50 to the French franc, regardless of the state of the local economy and territorial budgets.

Thus, if the territory becomes independent - and France also lets the Pacific franc float independently - the local currency would become virtually worthless and the economy would collapse. That is unless France decided to continue its commitment to French Polynesia or if French aid was substituted by massive infusion of capital from, for instance, Australia.

France's military presence

Initially, France's forces in Polynesia and at the CEP were under the same command but, in 1987, the structure was reorganized to distinguish between the CEP and 'Sovereignty Forces' under the command of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces in French Polynesia (COMSUP). He is also the commander of the Pacific Fleet and Maritime Area (ALPACI). The forces stationed at Moruroa, Fangataufa and Hao are under a separate CEP commander (DIRCEN).

In 1994, COMSUP/ALPACI's Sovereignty Forces totalled 2770 men, of whom 1098 belonged to the army, 875 to the navy and 151 to the air force. Paramilitary gendarmes numbered 351 and other, smaller units totalled 125 men. According to a French army document, their duty is 'to defend France's sovereignty on this overseas territory and to guarantee a safe climate by protecting the interests of French Polynesia on its islands and atolls as well as within its exclusive economic zone'. The army consists of a French maritime infantry battalion based at Taaone outside Papeete, while the naval authorities are located at Fare Ute in the territory's capital. The naval contingent includes two frigates, the Prairial and the Vendemiaire, as well as three P400 patrol boats, a transport vessel and two scientific ships. The air force is headquartered at Air Base 190 'Sergent Julien Allain' which is adjacent to Papeete's civilian airport at Faa'a. Currently, three Super Puma AS.332 are based at Moruroa and one Caravelle is at Faa'a but it is soon to be replaced by two CASA CN-235/100s.

The rear base at Hao provides technical support for the DIRCEN as well as administrative support for the entire air force staff in French Polynesia. At the actual test sites, DIRCEN commands the 5th Foreign Legion Battalion which was transferred to French Polynesia in 1963, as well as naval units and a helicopter squadron. The biological control boat Marara is registered in Papeete and commissioned with a civilian staff.

However, it is COMSUP/ALPACI which has the strategically most important command area. French Polynesia's total land area is not more than 3940 sq. km. but the territory consists of 138 islands and islets spread out over an economic zone totalling 5,030,000 sq. km., or almost the size of Europe. Apart from maintaining the CEP, control over this zone, which encompasses the European Union's largest economic ocean area, is considered a main reason for France's interest in maintaining a permanent presence in the Pacific.

A social time bomb

France's military designs and presence in the Pacific have not only created a welfare state out of an economy which once was almost totally dependent on fishing and the production of copra but also caused severe dislocation of the local population which in turn threatens the stability of French Polynesia. Since the establishment of the CEP, tens of thousands of people from outlying islands have been flocking to the main island, Tahiti, in search of employment.

Despite the relatively high living standard, shanty towns have grown as a result and the unemployment rate is unofficially estimated at 15 per cent of the work force. The problem - and the whole issue of loyalty to France - is further complicated by the fact that more than one-fifth of the population is under 20. In other words, they have no recollection of the subsistence economy which existed prior to the arrival of CEP in the 1960s.

These young people have only seen what they perceive as social injustices. These are exacerbated by the privileges enjoyed by nearly 30 000 well-paid Frenchmen who have settled temporarily or permanently on the islands since the nuclear boom began 30 years ago. The situation is not yet as severe as in New Caledonia where French settlers already outnumber the native population but the French influence is considerable and a source of disaffection among many less fortunate, young Polynesians.

The riots on 6/7 September were carried out by such young, unemployed and discontented youths. They were quickly suppressed, and an additional 800 gendarmes were flown in from France and New Caledonia to maintain security. Nevertheless, in the process, this influx of well-armed security personnel has also given Tahiti an even stronger air of being under despised, foreign military occupation.

Local Polynesian politics have always been closely intertwined with the issues of nuclear testing and social dislocation. The main pro-independence party, the 'Tavini Huiraatira' (Serving the People), has its main power base in the shanty towns of Faa'a where thousands of migrant workers live. The party's leader, Oscar Temaru, is the elected mayor of Faa'a and he has strengthened his position across the territory as a result of the resumption of the nuclear tests which, despite the economic benefits, have always been unpopular locally.

In the last election to the 41-member territorial assembly, the Tavini secured not more than 13 per cent of the electorate and four seats, and with most votes drawn from Faa'a and a few other working-class townships on Tahiti itself. This was increased to 17 per cent in the municipal elections in June this year and, since then, Temaru has maintained a high local, as well as international, profile as the main opponent of the tests.

Temaru is now threatening to boycott the next territorial election, scheduled to take place in March 1996, if the French authorities do not go ahead with investigations into the personal affairs of the president of French Polynesia, pro-Chirac Gaston Flosse. He has been charged in court with corruption and misuse of public funds. Temaru has also declared that he is more interested in negotiating with the French the development of self-sufficiency, with the aim of establishing a more independent economy in preparation for full political independence, than taking part in local elections of little consequence for the future of the territory. His followers point out that the autonomy which the territory his enjoyed since 1984 is severely limited: Article 3 of the 'Statut' lists 18 areas which are still the responsibility of 'the state' (ie: Paris) rather than 'the territory'. These include foreign relations, defence, immigration, judicial affairs, navigation, foreign trade agreements, maintenance of law and order, appointments of most civil servants, and even local television.

However, the odds facing Temaru and Tavini are formidable. Flosse and his ruling party, the 'Tahoeraa Huiraatira', control most territorial affairs, including what appears to be vast sums of money. Although Tahoeraa did not win more than 30 per cent of the vote in 1991, Flosse has been able to rule with the support of different, centrist parties and groupings. Apart from being the president of the territory, he also holds the lucrative portfolios of tourism minister and housing minister. In addition, he is the mayor of Pirea municipality north of Papeete and represents the territory in the National Assembly in Paris, apart from owning real estate and other property in Tahiti. His close, personal association with President Chirac - who is the godfather of his youngest son - gives Flosse special access to the highest levels of power in France. Accordingly, he has been able to return from Paris with aid packages and promises of more financial support for the territory.

Flosse enjoys the backing of most French settlers, who are entitled to vote in local elections, and many so-called demis, people of mixed European-Polynesian blood who feel that France provides them with benefits as well as protection from the sometimes unpredictable native population. Flosse also controls the electorate in many of the outlying archipelagos which are less affected by pro-independence sentiments than the main island. An important stronghold is the Marquesas Islands. Here, Tahoeraa alone won 48.5 per cent of the votes in the 1991 election. Although the population of this remote archipelago is less than 10,000, the support for Flosse - and indirectly for France is politically more important than the number of people living there suggests.

A major problem that France has faced in French Polynesia all along is the fact that the territory is predominantly Protestant. English missionaries from the London Missionary Society converted the local population to Christianity in the early 19th century, well before the arrival of the French. The local church, Eglise Evanangelique de Polynesie Franqaise, has been a vocal critic of France's nuclear tests since the 1960s and, although they do not declare it too openly, also for independence. Pastor Ralph Teinaore, general secretary of the the Eglise Evanangelique, describes French Polynesia, and especially the main island Tahiti, as a "social time bomb" which may explode even without nuclear tests on Moruroa. In his view, the social problems which the French presence has created have worsened since the tests were resumed in September, and the church has devoted much effort to calming the public.

The most dangerous social consequence of the resumption of the tests, Pastor Teinaore says, is that it has been caused by a breakdown in 'ethnic relations' in Tahiti. Frenchmen, who have lived for years in peace with their Polynesian neighbours, have become isolated and defensive, and previously quiet Polynesians are expressing their anger towards anyone from France. Teinaore fears these ethnic conflicts may escalate into violence if the church as well as the French authorities do not initiate reconciliation between the two communities.

The main exception to these anti-French sentiments comes from the Marquesas Islands which are mainly Roman Catholic along with some islands in the Tuamotu archipelago. It has even been speculated that France may separate the Marquesas from the rest of the territory if it chooses to become independent. Such a scenario would follow a precedent set in 1975 when the Comoros Islands declared their independence from France and the island of Mayotte, with its excellent harbour, broke away to remain French.

The future of French Polynesia - and, indeed, the fate of France's presence in the Pacific - will be decided in March 1996 when the tests cease, the CEP is closed down and elections are held in the territory. The potentially explosive nature of the nuclear programme is reflected in France's decision to limit the number of tests to six instead of eight, and that they will cease before March rather than in May, as announced initially. Evidently, France does not want its controversial tests to become an election issue.

However, the question is whether this is not too late to avoid making the nuclear tests - and the French presence in the Pacific - a pivotal question in Polynesian politics over the next year. Evidently, France misjudged the extent of international outrage against the decision to resume nuclear testing in French Polynesia and it seems to have misjudged the level of popular resentment with its rule over the territory as well. This is not likely to change when the tests cease next year.

The main question, however, is how Australia and the South Pacific Forum will react to renewed Polynesian demands for independence. Further, is Australia prepared to pay for the cost of a French withdrawal, full or partial, from the region? As a first step, observers feel that Australia should openly declare its long-term intentions in the Pacific as well as show its readiness to finance a transfer of power in Papeete.

This article first appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review, January 1996

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