Thursday, April 13, 2006

Audrey Young: France, New Zealand kiss and make up

During the fanfare last week over the visit of China's Premier Wen Jiabao, the visit of a swotty-looking young French minister went largely unnoticed.

Francois Baroin checked out of the Intercontinental Hotel in Wellington the same day Premier Wen checked in, fresh from a Pacific summit he had hosted in Fiji.

Virtually no one would have recognised Mr Baroin - apart from those who may have thought the schoolboy wizard Harry Potter (to whom the French press liken him) had come to town.

But a few diplomats and Pacific-watchers would have registered the significance of the Frenchman's presence. It was the first visit of a minister for "overseas France" since the post was established about 25 years ago.

That, said Mr Baroin, had to change, he told the Herald.

"The less we meet, the more we move apart," he said through an interpreter. "And the more we meet, the more we come together."

Without using the word nuclear, or Rainbow Warrior, he acknowledged precisely what had lay behind the mutual dereliction of Pacific co-operation of the regional powers.

"I really believe that these difficulties that we have had in the past and which were painful are really behind us."

Mr Baroin is a familiar face in France in the conservative ruling UMP party (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) as the "teenager" of the Cabinet. He was first elected as a deputy (MP) to the National Assembly at the age of 24 and now, at the age of 41, he is also France's youngest minister, positioned at No 17 out of 32.

But in France he is controversially known as the man former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin picked to head a commission on "laicite" - the separation of religion and state - which led to the ban in scarf-wearing by Muslim girls in schools.

Mr Baroin, among the half a dozen ministers said to be closest to President Jacques Chirac, was given his first ministerial posting in June last year, when he was made Minister for Overseas Territories.

The goodwill towards him by those he met in Wellington represented more than a thaw from the resentment that existed until France's nuclear testing in French Polynesia ended 11 years ago.

France is now, figuratively speaking, welcomed to the Pacific by New Zealand with a kiss on both cheeks, then one more with affection.

Helen Clark met the minister, as did Phil Goff as Trade and Defence Minister and Pacific Affairs Minister; and Foreign Minister Winston Peters.

Mr Peters, it was observed, struck up a special rapport with the French minister through the international passport to instant camaraderie, cigarette smoking.

At a working dinner at Zibibo restaurant on Tuesday night, the pair disappeared to the footpath outside between each course and according to French ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud it "was clearly an element in their good relations".

The tangible nature of closer co-operation in the Pacific was evident the next day.

Mr Peters and Mr Baroin signed a new FRANZ surveillance agreement - as the threesome is known - that commits France, Australia, and New Zealand to co-ordinate their military patrols in the exclusive economic zones of Pacific countries for illegal fishing.

And the surveillance agreement builds on an existing FRANZ arrangement to co-operate during Pacific disaster relief.

Mr Peters also signed an agreement with France to jointly fund a new government administration for Niue to replace the one destroyed in cyclone Heta in 2004. France will give $1 million and New Zealand $2 million.

The significant mood shift towards France from New Zealand's viewpoint is not just because the nuclear aggravation has gone but because of France's own changes towards its territories - New Caledonia and French Polynesia, now led by independence advocate Oscar Temaru - in allowing them to take a place a Pacific Affairs.

The way Helen Clark put it this week was: "What I have observed in the last six and a quarter years [since becoming Prime Minister] particularly since the election of Oscar Temaru, is the development of a regional personality by the territories, which France is not blocking and, on the contrary, seems to be positive about."

The praise of France contrasts with the former opprobrium in which France held not only for its nuclear testing but for smothering the local nationhood aspirations which that resistance naturally fostered.

Written into the organic law is the right for both French Polynesia and New Caledonia to have a referendum for self-determination. That is not to say the relationship with the mothership is all smooth going.

Mr Baroin pointedly noted that the largest contribution among all its overseas territories went to French Polynesia - $2.25 billion a year with an increase of 5 per cent a year.

He had been talking about his visit to the territory before arriving in New Zealand.

Mr Temaru baited him by beating the independence drums loudly before the minister arrived. Reflecting on his encounter with Mr Temaru, Mr Baroin said pithily that within the Republic of France "freedom is the rule but there is no freedom without rules".

"And I reminded him with the necessary firmness [of] the framework within these rules, ie, the French constitution, within which nowadays French Polynesia is anchored."

He continued: "I believe France has found an amazing balance to ensure that we can progress jointly. I have also reminded everybody that one may be an individual and still be together."

The trade relationship between New Zealand and the French territories ($120 million exports to New Caledonia and $167 million to French Polynesia) is one of the drivers in the improving relations.

But the change in attitude by New Zealand and Australia towards France must also be seen in terms of the relative movement of other big powers. Britain has scaled down its representation in the Pacific states to Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

The United States has other priorities. China is moving in. France has stayed.

The various powers now compete for the attentions of Pacific leaders with top level summits: Premier Wen's inaugural one in Fiji, Japan's every two years, President Bush held one in Hawaii last term and President Chirac is hosting a second one this year, in Paris in June - coinciding with the opening of a new museum of indigenous art (Musee du Quai Branly.)

Helen Clark rejected a suggestion that France might be engaging more in the neighbourhood as a response to the growing influence of China in the region.

"I don't think it's about that. It's about France, having got that issue which caused so much aggravation in the region off the agenda, nuclear testing, it was in a position rebuild better relations and I think it has done that."

But she acknowledged that France's more active engagement with other parts of the region could be seen in the context of its historic power which, for example, had afforded it a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

"There's no doubt that France will work very hard to retain that 'great power' status, very hard. And it is a relatively independent voice in that respect.

"France, as a great power traditionally, now works on a much more crowded playing field with India, China, Brazil others also growing in presence, if you like, in the international community. It's an interesting time."

Mr Baroin said there was need for France's presence in the region.

"And there is a need for a presence from the EU in order to guarantee this political stability and also to guarantee harmonious economic development."

That was also the message he had also received from the Australian Government. He described the rising presence of China in the Pacific as "a matter of fact".

"It is a very important matter of fact."

But he said France shared New Zealand's view that it wanted players in the region to be able to benefit from China's dramatic growth.

France engages in the Pacific at three levels: at a bilateral level and in 2005 it gave $55 million in aid to island states; as a strong player in the European Union - the third highest aid donor in the Pacific - and within its own territories. For the small Pacific nations, now is an important time to have France's advocacy when the "it" place for donor Euros is Africa.

The EU at present is undertaking a review of its commitments in the Pacific and in mid-year is expected to release a new long-term development budget.

"Having a powerful EU country which is an advocate for the Pacific is a great advantage," Helen Clark said.

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