PAPEETE, French Polynesia (AP) — President Emmanuel Macron is visiting French Polynesia to showcase France’s commitment to the region amid concerns about the impact of climate change on the Pacific island territory, the legacy of French nuclear testing on its atolls — and most of all, growing Chinese dominance in the region.
He started his trip Saturday night in Tahiti with a visit to a hospital and an appeal to get vaccinated against the virus. With the world’s eyes on the Tokyo Olympics, Macron will also discuss Tahiti’s role as host of Olympic surfing competition for the 2024 Paris Games.
The trip is aimed at reinforcing France's geopolitical presence in the Pacific. Macron was greeted with an 'orero, a traditional declaration by a respected storyteller, as he arrived in Tahiti’s main city Papeete — 12 time zones away from Paris.
He may also face protests. Local activists held two demonstrations this month over long-standing demands for compensation, and an apology, over the underground and atmospheric nuclear tests carried out from 1966-1996. A Polynesian collective angry over French government plans to require health passes at restaurants and other venues also has threatened unspecified action.
Over four days, Macron will visit four sites spread out across an ocean territory that’s as large as Europe.
With a multi-ethnic population of about 300,000, the former French colony is made up of five archipelagos with a total of 118 islands. Since 2004, it has autonomous status, defined as “an overseas country within the republic” which “is governed freely and democratically, by its representatives.”
But Macron is still its head of state, and the long-awaited visit is part of what his office calls his “Tour de France” aimed at reaffirming “our proximity to overseas territories.”
For historian Jean-Marc Regnault of the University of French Polynesia, this trip is linked to France’s determination to show its power in the Indo-Pacific, and its “long-term resource objectives.”
The 4.8 million-square-kilometer (1.85 million-square-mile) Exclusive Economic Zone of French Polynesia has significant fishing and mineral resources, and authorities are seeking U.N. permission to extend the territory’s continental shelf.
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.”
He pointed to a French military operation in the region last month, when Rafale warplanes and other military jets zipped from Europe to French Polynesia in a show of strength.
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 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 also plans to discuss climate concerns, and visit a port to celebrate a local fishing industry that’s seen as a model of sustainability.
Macron won't be able to avoid the 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 the health and environmental damage from the tests.
Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.