Macron to push French ‘alternative’ amid U.S-China tussle in the Pacific


French President Emmanuel Macron travels to the southwest Pacific next week offering a “French alternative” to a region marked by rising China-U.S tensions, his office said Monday.

Macron’s trip starts in New Caledonia, a French overseas territory that is bitterly divided after three successive referendums rejected independence from France.

He is then to travel on to Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, an “historic” part of the journey because no French president had ever visited non-French islands in the region, an official said.

Macron will use those two stops to outline his Indo-Pacific strategy, aimed at “recommitting” France to the region, the official said.

Macron last year relaunched France’s Indo-Pacific approach in the aftermath of a bitter row over a cancelled submarine contract with Australia, casting France as a balancing power in a region dominated by the tussle between China and the United States.

“We don’t believe in hegemony, we don’t believe in confrontation, we believe in stability,” Macron said on the margins of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November.

France’s vocal engagement in the region came after Australia’s then-prime minister Scott Morrison in 2021 cancelled a French contract to provide Canberra with submarines, and instead announced a deal to buy U.S or British nuclear-powered subs.

“What we are offering is an alternative” amid the China-.U.S standoff, the Elysee official said. This would involve an increase in France’s engagement, notably in terms of development aid and help with natural disasters.

Macron’s visit to New Caledonia comes five years after his last trip there, and 19 months after the New Caledonians rejected independence in a third and final referendum under the so-called Noumea accords about the island group’s future.

Macron at the time hailed the vote’s outcome, saying “France is more beautiful” with the Pacific islands included.

But he also opened the door to “a period of transition”. The island group and the government in Paris now had to build “a common project,” he said, “free from the binary choice of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

Pro-independence campaigners had boycotted the vote, having demanded a postponement because “a fair campaign” was impossible with high coronavirus infection numbers.

The vote outcome has stoked ethnic tensions, with the poorer indigenous Kanak community generally favouring independence over the wealthier white community.

“At this point, it is important for the President to invite the whole range of political representation in New Caledonia to talk with him about the future status of New Caledonia, and ongoing negotiations,” the Elysee official said.

Macron will also travel to New Caledonia’s east coast to draw attention to coastal erosion there.