Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 08:43 | SYDNEY
Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 08:43 | SYDNEY

New Caledonia: Parlez vous Franglais?


Graeme Dobell

2 October 2009 12:40

Time to tell one of my New Caledonia stories and one of my many Gareth yarns.

I have been gently admonished by two Nicks for overlooking New Caledonia in my musings on Australia’s Arc in the South Pacific. My only defence is that in calling it the Australian Arc I was trying to describe Canberra's rather absent-minded adoption of the role of Pacific Protector. And New Caledonia certainly does not belong in any description of the Arc of countries where Australia offers security guarantees.

Nick Floyd is right to speak of Australia's cyclical blindspot about New Caledonia. My version has always been the broader point that Australia has a certain amnesia about the whole sweep of its deep history as a South Pacific power. We forget, but the Islands have long memories about us.

As Nick might be aware, many in Noumea have a different take on the Australian exploit of arms in dispatching HMAS Adelaide in 1940 to deny New Caledonia to the Vichy regime.* The Adelaide's exploit is remembered by many of the Caldoche in Caledonia as hard evidence that Australia's ultimate aim is always to do what the British could not — drive France from the Pacific.

With all that as background, come with me back to late 1991, when I flew into Noumea with Australia's Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, who was making a tour of the South Pacific.

Things were looking up between France and Australia. The Matignon Accord was three years old and New Caledonia was relatively calm. The tragic assassination of Jean-Marie Tjibaou two years earlier had shocked all sides into stepping back from the cycle of conflict. So Gareth arrived talking of a new era in Australia's relations with its French neighbour.

The Governor of New Caledonia marked the visit by announcing that the tariff on Australian cheeses would be scrapped. Change, indeed! In the evening, the cream of Noumea society gathered in the grand ballroom of the Governor's mansion. Say what you like about the French, but they certainly know how to do colonial architecture.

Among the 400 guests there were plenty of Kanaks, but the majority were Caledoche or those on postings from metropolitan France. It was not exactly a friendly audience. But everyone had eaten and supped (French wine and French cheese) when Gareth rose to speak. He launched into a story of first seeing Paris as a back-packing student in the 1960s. Then he attempted the joke.

One of his memories was of asking a Parisian the way to the station: la gare. The response had been a rather icy comment that the war was in Vietnam. Driving home his jest, Gareth explained that in his Oz-Franglais, he had said 'la guerre', not 'la gare'.

Granted this is not in the same league as Bob Hawke telling a room of Japanese executives that Australia would not play 'funny buggers' with them over trade issues, which was translated as Australia not threatening to be 'laughing homosexuals'. Even so, after several glasses of wine the Gareth mocking of his own language skills should have drawn a polite titter.

But in that room of 400, there was not a sound. Not a sigh, not a murmur. Cold, hard silence. How dare this Foreign Minister from a country that had only just managed to produce acceptable cheese make light of the glories of the French language? The stillness in the room seemed to last for the rest of the evening until the small band of Australians quickly slunk off into the night.

Not often did Gareth's department (or journalists) feel much sympathy for the Foreign Minister. But that moment of social pain lingered in the minds of all the diplomats present. Thus, a few years later when the French restarted their nuclear testing program in the South Pacific, the department had an immediate idea on how to ram home Australia's anger. To give the French the maximum pain, Gareth should immediately fly to Paris and deliver Australia's protest in an hour-long speech. All in French!

* Incidentally, 'Black' Jack McEwen claimed this piece of gunboat adventurism was his greatest single decision in a long ministerial career. It's an interesting perspective on how leaders think about what they do, given Sir John's achievements as leader of the Country Party and Trade Minister, his role in building the economic relationship with Japan, and his short stint as Australia’s 18th Prime Minister after Holt went swimming.

Photo by Flickr user Adrien Cretin, used under a Creative Commons license.