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French elections reverberate in New Caledonia

French elections reverberate in New Caledonia



You might wonder whether the result of the recent second round of French departmental elections – with Nicolas Sarkozy taking credit for the UMP's win of 67 departments, trouncing Francois Hollande's Socialists, who got 34 – has anything to do with Australian regional interests.

History has shown the destabilising effect that events in France can have on the French Pacific territories, our near neighbours, particularly New Caledonia just off the Queensland coast.

The clearest example was a massacre at a cave in New Caledonia in May 1988 at the height of the civil war when, in between rounds of the French presidential elections, pro-independence Kanaks took 27 French police officers and seven soldiers as hostages. The competing French candidates, Chirac and Mitterrand, with an eye to the vote, both speedily and publicly endorsed a hostage rescue attempt rather than negotiation, ending in the deaths of 21 people. (These events were portrayed in the film, L'ordre et la Morale or Rebellion; trailer above.)

Fortunately, the situation is not as tense in New Caledonia today as it was then. That massacre led to a conciliatory French mission which resulted in the 1988 Matignon and 1998 Noumea Accords, delaying the promised independence referendum in return for scheduled handovers of certain powers, and economic re-balancing and consolidation. 

Nonetheless, things are fragile in New Caledonia. [fold]

The independence referendum, so long deferred, must be held by 2018 and it is the local Congress, elected in May 2014, that must initiate the process. If it doesn't, then the French state has to hold the referendum itself.  But divisions are deepening within both the pro-France (29 seats) and the pro-independence (25) groupings of the Congress, each of which has fragmented since the Noumea Accord was signed.

First, after the May 2014 elections, pro-independence political leaders could not agree on which of their parties would take the mining portfolio, fundamental to economic re-balancing given New Caledonia is a major nickel exporter. The position remained vacant.

By December, pro-France parties were so divided that one refused to vote in Congress for fiscal reforms they had already agreed upon. This led to the resignation of the principal pro-France party, Calédonie Ensemble, from the executive government, which by law leads to the government's dissolution. A new executive was elected, but pro-France parties were unable to agree on which of their parties would take the presidency. The executive government operated in caretaker mode for three months, its powers thus limited at a time when much needed to be done to conclude the commitments scheduled under the Noumea Accord and to prepare for the referendum process.

Finally, on 1 April, a new pro-France president from the Calédonie Ensemble party was elected with the support of four pro-independence parties. Two pro-France parties and elements of one pro-independence party declined to participate in the election.

What is the connection with the departmental elections in France? The pro-France party that had refused to support already-agreed fiscal reforms is allied with Sarkozy's UMP at the national level. There has been speculation that it was deliberately delaying cooperation within local political institutions until the 2017 presidential elections, by which time it hoped a national UMP-led French State would be more attuned to its interests. The departmental results, with the massive win by the UMP, will sustain this hope. Some pro-France parties are unlikely to be too cooperative before 2017, with possible negative flow-on effects on pro-independence parties.

The agreement over the president will therefore be shaky. On the other hand, it could be the start of deeper cooperation between some pro-France parties and pro-independence groups, which would be a good basis for discussions about the future.

France has prepared a discussion paper on legal issues associated with various options for the future, and has appointed a commission which has begun a program of meetings and visits to New Caledonia. The genuine participation of all parties will be critical to a peaceful referendum process and transition to a new status for New Caledonia.

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