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The French Pacific Pivot

Published 20 Jul 2019
Lucy Nason

At the 18th annual Shangri-La Dialogue in June this year, France affirmed its commitment to the Indo-Pacific. French Minister of Defence, Florence Parly, unveiled a new white paper, ‘France and Security in the Indo-Pacific’, which declares that France is “a nation of the Indo-Pacific region” that holds “a distinctive place in this part of the world.” As outlined in the report, France is anchored in the Indian and Pacific Oceans through its overseas territories including Mayotte, La Réunion and France’s Antarctic Territories; and New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Thanks to these territories, France has the world’s second largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and over 1.6 million citizens living the Indo-Pacific. In his state visit to Australia last year (only the second ever by a French leader), President Emmanuel Macron called on like-minded democracies, Australia and India, to forge closer bonds to promote regional stability. What are the motivations behind France’s recent overt statements of interest in this region, and is a substantial French presence likely to be durable?

President Macron has made clear that upholding liberal democracy will define his presidency. Some have gone so far as to dub Macron, the “new leader of the free world.” In Europe, Macron has called for renewed faith in multilateral institutionalism and has implored the United States not to retrench from its global role in the wake of populism. The concern to protect the current international order brings the Indo-Pacific region into Macron’s sphere of concern. As stated in France’s Indo-Pacific white paper, “multilateralism is increasingly challenged, especially in the Indo-Pacific.” France’s overseas territories legitimise its claim to be a global leader and middle power and enhance the security of its position as a P5 member of the UN Security Council. Accordingly, French leadership in the Indo-Pacific offers an opportunity both to consolidate France’s regional presence and to demonstrate support for multilateralism in Asia in the context of a rising and potentially revisionist China.

Apart from these aims, France has an increasing economic interest in the Indo-Pacific. Its New Caledonian nickel projects represent France’s largest mining activities and from its EEZ it has access to fisheries and minerals in an economically dynamic region. Moreover, Indo-Pacific defence partners have contributed to France becoming the third largest exporter of arms globally after the US and Russia. In 2018, France reported a 30% jump in arms sales, with a total value of US$9.1 billion. Among France’s major clients were India ($462 million), Thailand ($363 million) and Indonesia ($129 million). France also officially identifies Australia, Malaysia and Singapore as important armament partners for the French defence industry, particularly following the AUD $50 billion submarine contract with Australia. France, therefore, has a vested financial stake in the health of its Indo-Pacific partnerships.

Australia has welcomed renewed French interest in the region. The language of France’s Indo-Pacific white paper in calling for “an international order based on a dialogue and the respect of multilaterally set rules” echoes that of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper as well as the US’ National Security Strategy, National Defence Strategy, and the recently released Indo-Pacific Strategy Report which identifies the Indo-Pacific as the US’ “priority theatre.” France’s commitment to develop its strategic partnerships with India, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, Indonesia and Vietnam into a “regional security architecture” aligns perfectly with Australia’s desire for multilateral cooperation to further regional ‘balance’, and a “values-based” foreign policy.

According to The Australian, Australia and the US have been pushing France to shift further resources to the region and agreed last month in Portsmouth to cooperate on development assistance. These efforts may eventually be linked to US-Australia-Japan plans to coordinate infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific. Future Franco-Australian regional cooperation will be built upon the foundations laid by past collaboration under the FRANZ agreement (on maritime surveillance, fisheries protection and emergency response), and membership of Pacific Islands dialogues. Australia and New Zealand were instrumental in securing membership of the Pacific Islands Forum for New Caledonia and French Polynesia in 2016. Relations appear to be on a positive track, with doubts over the health of the submarine contract dismissed by the formal signing of a production contract with the French Naval Group in February for the 12 Shortfin Barracudas.

However, it is questionable how strong France’s claim to be a ‘Pacific power’ really is. One prompt for increased engagement is also a challenge: New Caledonia. In 2008, New Caledonia became the headquarters for France’s Pacific military presence. Today, 1,660 personnel are located there operating two surveillance frigates equipped with helicopters, patrol vessels, maritime surveillance aircraft and tactical transport aircraft. Its New Caledonian operations are crucial to France’s ability to both exercise its freedom of navigation rights and protect access from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean via the Torres Strait, as well as its capacity to project its capabilities for the benefit of its alliance partners including disaster relief and surveillance cooperation.

In November last year, New Caledonia held its promised referendum on independence guaranteed by the Noumea Accords. Although New Caledonians voted to remain with France, it was by a far narrower margin than expected (56% – 44%). With a further two referenda scheduled for 2020 and 2022, and with demographic change likely to favour the independence campaign, New Caledonian independence is a distinct possibility, as is the potential for unrest. A vote in favour of independence would have serious implications for the legitimacy of France’s colonial possessions in the Indo-Pacific and its involvement in the region.

Furthermore, with Macron facing troubles at home and with distractions likely to come from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, where France has more significant interests, it is questionable how much energy France will be able to devote to the Indo-Pacific. The recent European elections were a blow for Macron, as Marine Le Pen’s domestic-focused, far right party topped the French polls after more than six months of ‘yellow vest’ anti-globalisation protests and low approval ratings for the pro-European liberal President. Even if Macron retains the Presidency in 2022, according to professor John Blaxland, “while there are enduring interests for France to remain engaged in the Pacific, it is still fairly peripheral.”

Although French desire is there and France has so far supported policy statements with actions (including have France’s only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier make a port visit to Singapore to coincide with Parly’s speech at the Shangri La Dialogue) a boost in its Indo-Pacific presence is unlikely to be both significant and sustained in the long-term.

Lucy Nason is currently a second year Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Sydney. She recently graduated from the University of Oxford with First Class Honours in History and Politics, where she focused on international relations and twentieth century political history. Having interned for a year at the United States Studies Centre, Lucy has a particular interest in US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region. She is also interested in diplomacy, public policy, and international law and has been a delegate to the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations and represented Australia at the Global Future Problem Solving international finals. Lucy is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.

Lucy is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.