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The New Zealand government backs the French Pacific territories becoming full members of the Pacific Islands Forum, reports Radio New Zealand International.

The director of the recently created New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research says New Zealand support for French Polynesia and New Caledonia joining the Pacific Islands Forum is a major step.

The New Zealand Prime Minister John Key made the announcement during Monday’s visit to New Zealand by the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

He says the New Zealand Foreign Minister will now work with the other 15 Forum members to see if there is a pathway forward for the French territories.

France and its Pacific territories have been pushing for membership for more than 10 years and in 2006 became associate members.

Associate Professor Damon Salesa told Don Wiseman of Radio New Zealand International’s Dateline Pacific programme the endorsement from Key was a major step.

DAMON SALESA: It’s a significant development and it’s a sign of what has been developing quite recently as a pattern of a growing closeness between the French Pacific and the English speaking – let’s call it that – the rest of the Pacific. And you know New Caledonia and French Polynesia were in an unusual relationship already within the Forum. They were the only two who were associate members. And so, in some ways this is a predictable progression. Wallis and Fortuna is an observer and there is a much larger group of observer nations, some of whose status as observers is more controversial. It is a big step, a significant step but it is not an unpredicted step. And I think it also shows that one of the key ways that New Zealand engages with the rest of the world, and particularly in this case, with Europe, is through its relationships in the Pacific. And it seems what came out from the French Prime Minister’s visit yesterday was that one of the primary reasons he came to New Zealand was to talk about exactly these issues with the New Zealand government.

DON WISEMAN: If the French territories did become full members clearly there would be increased pressure from the United States for their various territories to also be admitted because this is something they have been talking about, so the whole nature of the Pacific Islands Forum would change wouldn’t it?

DS: I think there is a great chance that it would signal a larger shift particularly with the question of Fiji’s participation in the Forum not [being] resolved. And of course these two nations have a different kind of profile to many of the core nations of the Pacific Islands Forum. So excluding Australia and New Zealand the rest of the nations don’t tend to have these large European descent populations or foreign populations that we see in New Caledonia, which is by far the largest one, but also a substantial one in French Polynesia. So what one might read from that is that on many key questions they might be closely aligned with others who share their interests, like Australia and New Zealand – perhaps , I mean this is all a bit of a prediction.

DW: There had been a distinction made with the set up of the Forum in the 1970s, with the set up of the Pacific Community, and that incorporated far more nations and part of it was that it would only be the independent countries that would be members but this clearly is something that is going to go by the boards.

DS: I think so and part of it is searching for the future of the Forum. You know we have got a new kind of leadership coming from the head of the Forum and what is needed is a clear purpose for all of the regional institutions in what is now a very different era where Australia, China, the US and New Zealand are all equally active in the Pacific and so this could be seen as a response to the new normal in the Pacific and it is, as you say, a substantial shift.

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