New Caledonia 1987-88: Russell Marshall sets the record straight on his role in pressing France to deal with the status of its South Pacific colony.

AuthorMarshall, Russell

In late August 1987 my first press statement as foreign minister dealt with then current events in New Caledonia. Meeting the staff for the first time at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Stafford House, I was asked to approve a draft statement about what the French were doing there, a statement drafted by Peter Adams, head of the ministry's South Pacific Division.

Jacques Chirac had recently been elected prime minister of France. One of his early actions was to abandon the limited steps towards autonomy planned by his predecessor, the Socialist Laurent Fabius. Predictably the indigenous Kanak population, in particular the strongest of the independentists, the Jean Marie Tjibaou-led FLNKS, reacted strongly. The French reaction had been excessive and brutal. The FLNKS had captured a group of French gendarmes and held them hostage in a cave on Ouvea, the northernmost of the Loyalty Islands. Ordered to rescue them, the French military had stormed the cave, rescued their colleagues and killed nineteen of the hostage takers.

The South Pacific community was universally outraged at this development, a seriously backward step. At the United Nations General Assembly in 1988, the Pacific member states, shepherded largely by New Zealand, were to make a concerted attack on France for its retrograde policies vis-a-vis New Caledonia and its excessive reaction.

At the beginning of 1988 I was in France as part of the annual trade round. The ambassador, Judith Trotter, and her deputy, Peter Heenan, had both recently taken up office. We were making formal calls on ministers of the Chirac government and the ambassador suggested that we make contact with somebody in the Parti Socialiste. I told her I had met three ministers of the recent Fabius government, two at OECD meetings, and Michel Rocard, who had been to New Zealand as agriculture minister and with whom I had sat at the ministerial lunch. Rocard had apparently fallen out with the current leadership of the party but was still seen as a formidable figure on the left. Francois Mitterand had not yet announced his intentions concerning a second term as president and Rocard had indicated he was waiting in the wings should an alternative Socialist candidate be required. We sought and were granted a meeting with him, and our conversation took place at the party headquarters.

The most interesting parts of the conversation were on the Rainbow Warrior and New Caledonia. On New Caledonia, I asked Michel...

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