And what was bound to happen, happened. While French diplomacy is being questioned after recent mistakes in North Africa and while the Minister of Foreign Affairs is being substituted in Paris, a delegation led last week by the Finance Minister Christine Lagarde scouted around for opportunities in Indonesia.
The “mission: impossible” of this “Sri Mulyani made in France” — who was ranked as one of the most influential women by Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and Time in 2009-2010 — consisted in taking over Zidane’s visit in 2007. She had to explain that France is not only Louis Vuitton and Eric Cantona’s motherland.
This exploration of a new pioneering front, far from the Françafrique (the former French colonies in Africa), does not come from nowhere; it does make sense. It is true that it is happening 15 years after the last presidential visit. Nevertheless, in the longue durée, Madame Lagarde, who was escorted by the Secretary of State for Transportation and 60 senior managers, landed in the wake of previous envoys: not only the French merchants, who sailed off Moluccas in 1615, but also after Daendels, the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies in 1808-1811, who was appointed by Bonaparte’s family.
More recently, the French Secretary of State for Human Rights traveled to Jakarta in 2007, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to Paris in 2009, and the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs to Java last December.
One could add the numerous French warships, which call at Indonesian ports. But, more deeply, this cooperation-to-be cannot rely only on history, such as is the case for the Dutch people, or on strategic considerations, as for the US, India or China.
It also must rest on similar concerns, namely, infrastructure and transport -- especially air industry via Airbus and PT Dirgantara. Protection of human rights through the same kind of associations, NGOs and independent administrative bodies, for example the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) in Indonesia and the High Authority against Discrimination and for Equality (Halde) in France will also link the two countries.
Additionally, secularism and Islam in the society, reflected in the Indonesian ideology Pancasila and the French laïcité, and well-balanced diplomacies initiated by the two national Bapak (founding fathers), Sukarno in Bandung in 1955 and Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) in Phnom Penh in 1966, will bolster the relationship as well.
Furthermore, in the soft power era, let us mention the Tour of Indonesia, which echoes the Tour de France, and the militant rock bands (Slank and Noir Désir in the 1990s) or movies from both countries. These later productions appear as the artistic heirs of political paintings such as Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1819), Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) and Raden Saleh’s Deer Hunt (1846) or Capture of Pangeran Diponegoro (1857). Last but not least, researchers often underline the diversity of Indonesia, as well as de Gaulle wondered: “How can you govern a country with 258 types [not of suku but] of cheese?”
Based on these actual commonalities, will the 2009 Franco-Indonesian partnership be just one more diplomatic agreement or can the societies expect something concrete beyond the polite handshakes? After extending financial support to geothermal projects and to the Agency for Meteorology Climatology and Geophysics, France could share its experience in various areas. In the 1980s, it became a decentralized state, like Indonesia in 1999. Moreover, in the 1990s, it adopted laws to regulate the funding of political parties, which is a critical issue in contemporary Indonesia.
On a military level, Paris initiated the European Union Atalante operation in 2008 to fight piracy in the Somalia Basin, while armed robbery against ships is on the rise off Natuna Islands. Besides, the Marine Nationale (French Navy) fights illegal fishing in the French Exclusive Economic Zone, which is the second largest in the world. This issue is precisely a big concern for Jakarta. At the end of the day, Indonesia could become the “lock” between the French Pacific and Indian Commands (Alpaci and Alindien) and, more generally, the bridge between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Although the trade value between France and Indonesia was only US$ 2.5 billion in 2010 — compared to more than $25 billion for China and $12 billion for India — these European and Asian crossroads seem to be in tune. In parallel, after having focused on Indochina, the French research is switching its attention to the maritime Southeast Asia and to more socio-political issues, which is critical to accompany these diplomatic moves.
In the near future, maybe the world could take advantage of this delayed and — wrongly — unexpected partnership. As the respective chairmen of ASEAN and G20, the two presidents Yudhoyono and Sarkozy have this year a unique opportunity to remind the concerns of the non-aligned countries to the US and China. Knowing the strong ability to complain and to demonstrate in Jakarta and Paris, it should not be difficult.
The writer is a research fellow in the Indonesia Program, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The views expressed are his own.