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Entretien avec l'ambassadeur

French Ambassador Interview


Making the French connection

Developing New Zealand's relationships with New Caledonia is high on the priority list for new French ambassador to New Zealand Francis Etienne, along with the hordes of French rugby supporters due here this year.

Mr Etienne started his three year term late last year, replacing Michel Legras, and predicts his period here will be a significant one for relations between the two countries.

First up there is the Rugby World Cup, and Mr Etienne admits there is a "strange" rugby relationship between the two countries, both countries looking for revenge for previous World Cup defeats.

He believes French will make up 10 percent of the 85,000 expected visitors, more than twice the next largest group, the English.

Beyond rugby, Mr Etienne said one of his goals while here is to increase the number of young French people allowed working visas here from about 1500 to as many as 2500.

He also wants to increase the links between New Caledonia and New Zealand.

"There is a huge potential here and it hasn't been worked out to the full."

Next year New Zealand's prime minister will visit France, but in March this year New Caledonian leaders will visit New Zealand and beyond that New Caledonia will hold a political referendum in 2014 to decide whether it wants to have more independence or full independence.

The territory has been French since 1853, and has major nickel deposits.

Mr Etienne said France does not want the results of the referendum to cause a community split and subsequent unrest, such as happened in Fiji.

His job here was "to prepare the field" and there should be no apprehension on the part of New Zealand about the referendum, he said.

"We have a window of opportunity between 2014 and 2018. Our constitution says there can be three referenda to make sure the decision is fully accepted.

"The acceptance of the result matters as much as the question itself."

Paris-born Mr Etienne grew up in Paris but his father was a big fan of mountaineers, including Sir Edmund Hillary, so Mr Etienne has spent time in the mountains and long been aware of New Zealand and it had an appeal because of the mountains.

However, when asked if he has been to New Zealand he laughs: "It is a trick question."

In 1984 he was a diplomatic trainee in New Caledonia, following tensions over French atomic testing the Pacific and New Zealand's 1984 declaration the country was nuclear-free.

The High Commissioner in Noumea was asked to go to Wellington to instruct the country's prime minister that he was "not doing things properly" and France was not happy with the declaration.

The High Commissioner brought Mr Etienne as a translator, where they ran into a furious then prime minister David Lange.

"I remember I sweated like no-one and I grabbed maybe 30 percent of what he said because my English was pretty poor," he said.

It was not helped by flying in to an atrocious Wellington day, it was almost a snowstorm on a small plane, and witnessing a car crash on leaving the airport.

However, the next day on leaving, the weather cleared and as the aircraft circled Wellington he promised he would return as it looked so beautiful. "It just took 25 years."

Mr Etienne insists that the spectre of nuclear testing in the Pacific and the 1985 bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by French secret agents, no longer looms large in relations.

"It was clearly a mistake, we apologised, the prime minister came here, we started something completely different. Obviously New Zealand was not targeted, something else was targeted and it happened here, it could have happened anywhere."

Mr Etienne said New Zealand was known as the land of the long white cloud, but there is "bright blue sky in the relations between the countries".

NZPA January 27, 2011, 7:58 am