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New Caledonia: French election calendar stymies progress

New Caledonia can ill afford discussions to stall for nine months when only 22 months remain before the referendum deadline.

Nehoue Bay, northwestern New Caledonia, 2015 (Photo: Flickr/Denis Bosquet)
Nehoue Bay, northwestern New Caledonia, 2015 (Photo: Flickr/Denis Bosquet)
Published 3 Feb 2017 

A recent visit to New Caledonia highlighted the complexities and risks of realpolitik in this French Pacific territory, where France's national election cycle has overshadowed negotiations for New Caledonia's future status.

Few New Caledonian leaders forget the 1988 presidential elections, when desperate Kanaks took police hostage in between the two voting rounds. The French response left 21 dead. The tragedy led to negotiations, with two Accords underpinning 30 years of peace on a promise of an independence referendum.

Local political interests in New Caledonia are currently focused on a deadline of November 2018, by which time the long-awaited independence referendum process must begin. The result, watched by other French territories, will redefine not only New Caledonia's status, but France's continued regional presence.

Discussion and preparation has begun. The 2014 Courtial-Soucramien report set out legal considerations for each of four options: independence, full integration and two types of association with France. The Christnacht Commission has met all parties involved and completed a summary of areas of convergence and divergence. All parties will now prepare submissions principally on the areas of difference, as a basis for the serious negotiations to follow.

A mantra repeated to me throughout my visit from French officials and from each of the principal parties was that little progress can be made before the 2017 French national elections conclude. These include the presidential (23 April and 7 May) and National Assembly parliamentarian rounds (11 and 18 June), and the senate election (September).

The hiatus is not just because France is the arbiter of the referendum preparation process and French leaders are preoccupied with the elections. Nor is it because Socialists and Republicans (or even their respective candidates) take different positions on New Caledonia: they don't. They all want New Caledonia to remain French, and their policies for Overseas France are remarkably similar (see those of François Fillon, Manuel Valls and Benoît Hamon).

The real impact is that elections will decide which leaders will win the two MP and two Senatorial positions from New Caledonia. Since the 1970s, the territory's national seats have been the preserve of the pro-France majority; up to the early 2000s, this meant the loyalist party headed by Jacques Lafleur. But this party has splintered substantially since. Winning one or more of the prized seats, with associated trips to Paris and interface with French leaders, will strengthen the hand of whichever loyalist parties are successful.

This matters, because loyalist policies vary, with radically different potential consequences for peace and stability. And contenders will play on supporters' fears and insecurities. One approach favours not holding a referendum at all, but simply negotiating a third Accord or deferral. This is strongly opposed by some independence elements and risks violence. The independence coalition signed on to a deferred vote in good faith to end bloody civil war in the 1980s, after unfulfilled promises of independence and/or autonomy dating from the latter 1950s. They have kept to their commitment despite the assassination of their leader, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, for agreeing to it. It is notable that only one of the many pro-France electoral aspirants supported successful Republican candidate Fillon, and he belongs to the party whose leader first advocated a third Accord.

Another equally inflammatory loyalist idea is to hold a referendum immediately, without negotiation, referred to as a referendum-couperet (literally 'guillotine-cut referendum'). They argue that the majority is pro-France anyway, so holding a referendum outright would get the inevitable result over and done. Since the referendum process potentially involves three votes over eighteen months, holding a referendum could, without preparation, invite a protracted period of instability.

In between these two positions, loyalist parties support varying shades of cooperation and negotiation with the pro-independence side.

The independence parties are generally more sanguine about the French elections, with some saying they will 'play the game' and put up candidates (acknowledging they won't win) while continuing to prepare their ambit papers and engage in discussions. But they can hardly make progress if loyalist groups won't participate until after the French elections.

An ominous ongoing undercurrent is incipient violence, evident in what is euphemistically called délinquence (delinquency), a codeword for violence initiated by a few young, socially disaffected Kanaks against the mainly European middle class.

French and local parties favouring and opposing the status quo are to be commended for the processes so far preparing for a referendum. But the timing of the national elections is a complication given the hard negotiations ahead, the potential for manipulation of policy positions, and ongoing violence involving some alienated young Kanaks. The territory can ill afford discussions to stall for nine months when only 22 months remain before the referendum deadline.

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