By Eleisha Foon, journalist
France has deployed Rafale jet fighters during a military ceremony in New Caledonia, marking President Emmanuel Macron’s first official day in the Pacific.
Macron arrived in Noumea overnight on a visit aimed at bolstering his Indo-Pacific strategy and reaffirming France’s role in the region.
The historic five-day trip includes a visit to Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. It is the first time a French president has visited independent Pacific Islands, according to French officials.
A big focus will be asserting France’s role in what Macron has called a “balancing force” between the United States and China.
France assumes sovereignty for three Pacific territories: New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna.
However, not everyone was happy about the presidential visit.
New Caledonia was politically divided and seeking a way forward after three referendums on independence.
The outcome of all three polls was a “no” to independence but the result of the third vote, which was boycotted by Kanaks, was disputed.
Rallies were expected during the French President’s visit.
Local committees of the main pro-independence party the Caledonian Union have called for “peaceful” but determined rallies.
Their presence will be felt particularly when Macron heads north today to the east coast town of Thio, as well as when he gathers the New Caledonian community together tomorrow afternoon for a speech, where he is expected to make a major announcement.
About 40 percent of the population are indigenous Kanak, most of whom support independence. Pro-independence parties, which have been in power since 2017, want full sovereignty by 2025.
Macron is expected to meet with all sides in Noumea this week.
A large delegation has joined Macron on his visit, including Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu.
Foreign minister in Suva
Colonna will also travel to Suva, Fiji today, the first visit of a French foreign affairs minister to the country.
She will meet with the Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka and the Pacific Islands Forum Deputy Secretary General Filimon Manoni.
The move was to “strengthen its commitment in the region”, French officials have said.
Meetings have also been set with Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape when the delegation travels there on Friday.
France has investments in PNG to develop its gas resources under French-owned multinational oil and gas company TotalEnergies.
Vanuatu chiefs appeal
Emmanuel Macron will be in Port Vila on Wednesday.
Vanuatu’s Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs want Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau to let President Macron know that the Mathew and Hunter Islands belong to Vanuatu and are not part of New Caledonia.
Tanna chief Jean Pierre Tom said ni-Vanuatu people were expecting his visit to be a “game changer and not a re-enforcement of colonial rule”.
This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.
En vol vers la Nouvelle-Calédonie, accueilli par nos Rafale qui viennent confirmer que la France est une puissance de l’Indo-Pacifique ! pic.twitter.com/yj8r1PHOMi
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) July 24, 2023
Article by AsiaPacificReport.nz