French Maritime Strategic Thinking on the Indo-Pacific Area
(Source: Center for International Maritime Security; issued March 31, 2017)
By David Scott
In Europe, France is distinctive in claiming that its boundaries actually extend outside Europe into the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, i.e. the ‘Indo-Pacific,’ through its overseas departments (département d’outre-mer), and overseas territories (territoire d’outre-mer), which are considered integral parts of France, and indeed thereby of the European Union.

These Indo-Pacific possessions also have large Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). These give France important maritime interests to be maintained, and if need be defended, by the French Navy.

French maritime strategy is two-fold. Firstly, locally-based naval ships patrol in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Secondly, regular deployments from metropolitan waters of the Jeanne d’Arc Group; the battle group centered around the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and amphibious helicopter carrier Mistral, along with supporting destroyers, frigates, nuclear attack submarines, and air surveillance.

As the current Chief of Staff Admiral Prazuck noted “our commitment to freedom of navigation calls for deployments to the Asia-Pacific zone several times each year.” Jeanne D’Arc 2017 consisted of a four-month deployment from March-June 2017 in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, described by France as “Indo-Pacific space … which is admittedly a long way from [metropolitan] France, but not from our territories.”

In the Indian Ocean, France’s possessions of Mayotte (population around 227,000) and Reunion (population around 840,000) in the southwest quadrant, are both considered as an “overseas department” (département d’outre-mer). They operate as “interlocking military stations” (Rogers), together with military facilities in Djibouti. In the southern (Terres Australes) quadrant are the uninhabited Kerguelen, St. Paul & Amsterdam and the Crozet islands which operate as “overseas territories” (territoire d’outre-mer) administered from Reunion.

This residency status is why France was a founding member of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) established in 2008. France keeps a permanent naval presence at Reunion. This is further strengthened by regular deployment into the region of the Jeanne d’Arc carrier battle group; eight times during 2001-2017, which has included regular biannual joint exercises with India (Varuna since 1993) and the U.S. (Operation Bois Bellau in 2013).

In the Pacific, France is to be found in New Caledonia (population 270,000), Wallis & Futuna (population 12,000), and French Polynesia (population 270,000). Both New Caledonia and French Polynesia were admitted as full members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in September 2016. French “maritime naval zones” and local naval units are centered on New Caledonia and French Polynesia. It is from New Caledonia that France hosts the biannual Croix du Sud humanitarian and relief exercises. France has participated in a range of Pacific security mechanisms since their foundation; namely the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (1988 onward), with Australia and New Zealand in the FRANZ mechanism (1992 onwards), with the U.S., Australia and New Zealand in the Quadrilateral Defence Coordination Group (1998 onwards), and the South Pacific Defence Ministers mechanism (2013 onward.

Five key documents provide the strategic background to this Indo-Pacific maritime role:
-- A national strategy for the sea and for the oceans (2008)
-- Maritimisation: La France face à la nouvelle géopolitique des océans (2012)
-- Defence and national security (2013)
-- National strategy for security of maritime areas (2015)
-- France and security in the Asia-Pacific (2014, 2016)

Each of these can be looked at to see the development of this Indo-Pacific maritime role for France.


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