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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 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.
While in the South Pacific territory, he plans to discuss its strategic role, the legacy of nuclear tests and the existential risk of rising seas posed by global warming.
Residents in the sprawling archipelago of more than 100 islands located midway between Mexico and Australia are hoping Macron confirms compensation for radiation victims following decades of nuclear testing as France pursued atomic weapons.
The tests remain a source of deep resentment, seen as evidence of racist colonial attitudes that disregarded the lives of islanders.
"During this visit, the president intends to establish a strong and transparent dialogue by encouraging several concrete steps, on the history with the opening of state archives as well as individual compensation," said a French presidential official, who asked not to be named.
French officials denied any cover-up of radiation exposure at a meeting earlier this month with delegates from the semi-autonomous territory led by President Édouard Fritch.
The meeting came after the investigative website Disclose reported in March that the impact from the fallout was far more extensive than authorities had acknowledged, citing declassified French military documents on the nearly 200 tests.
Only 63 Polynesian civilians have been compensated for radiation exposure since the tests ended in 1996, Disclose said.
'Tour de France' with a wary eye on China
Macron, who arrived in the South Pacific after a visit to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, will also lay out his policy vision for the strategically valuable territory, where China has made no secret of its push for military and commercial dominance.
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. Tahiti is the most densely populated of the islands.
Since 2004, it has an 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”.
The 4.8 million-square-kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone of French Polynesia has significant fishing and mineral resources, and authorities are seeking UN permission to extend the territory’s continental shelf.
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”.
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 neighbours, 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 US, Japan and other governments worry China is seeking to gain influence in their strategic spheres.
Climate change, pandemic also on the cards
Macron also plans to address risks for the islands from rising sea levels as well as cyclones that some scientists warn could become more dangerous due to climate change.
But his first visit will be with hospital workers racing to combat rising Covid-19 cases with vaccines.
Many Polynesians remain wary of the jabs, with just 29 percent of adults vaccinated, compared with almost 49 percent across France nationwide.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)