France’s President Emmanuel Macron is visiting former French colonies in the South Pacific in an attempt to showcase France’s commitment to the region.
Macron will visit four places, spread out across an ocean territory that’s as large as Europe.
France wants to demonstrate its concerns about the impact of climate change on Pacific island territories, the legacy of French nuclear testing on its atolls, and most of all, growing Chinese dominance in the region.
Macron started his trip on Saturday night in Tahiti with a visit to a hospital and an appeal to islanders to get vaccinated against Covid-19, Bloomberg reports.
With the world’s eyes on the Tokyo Olympics, Macron will also discuss Tahiti’s role as host of the Olympic surfing competition for the 2024 Paris Games.
The trip is aimed at reinforcing France’s geopolitical presence in the Pacific but he may also face protests. Local activists held two demonstrations this month over long-standing demands for compensation, and an apology, over the nuclear tests carried out on atolls in the region from 1966-1996.
The tests remain a source of deep resentment, seen as evidence of racist colonial attitudes that disregarded the lives of islanders.
Also, a Polynesian collective angry over French government plans to require health passes at restaurants and other venues has threatened unspecified action.
The French president is head of state but since 2004, the former colony has autonomous status, defined as “an overseas country within the republic” which “is governed freely and democratically, by its representatives”.
Historian Jean-Marc Regnault of the University of French Polynesia says this trip is linked to France’s determination to show its power in the Indo-Pacific.
France is trying to “strike back at obvious Chinese lust” for Pacific resources, said Regnault, who wrote a recent book called “The Indo-Pacific and the New Silk Roads.”
China is the biggest trading partner for its Asian-Pacific neighbors, who are eager to profit from its appetite for industrial components and iron ore, timber, oil and food. But they are increasingly uneasy about Beijing’s use of access to its markets to push for political concessions.
France, the United States, Japan and other governments worry China is seeking to gain influence in their strategic spheres.
Macron won’t be able to avoid the historical nuclear issue, though he’s not expected to make any new promises during the visit.
He ordered high-level meetings earlier this month on the issue in an operation called Reko Tika, which means “truth and justice” in the paumotu language.
But the Polynesian delegation reported minimal progress on their demands, including declassifying government archives and facilitated compensation over health and environmental damage from the nuclear tests.