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New Caledonia prepares for the future: two steps forward, one step back

French and New Caledonian leaders have achieved some important steps in preparing for the 2018 ‘final’ referendum process.

New Caledonia prepares for the future: two steps forward, one step back
Published 23 Nov 2016 

French and New Caledonian leaders have achieved some important steps in preparing for the 2018 ‘final’ referendum process, the last stage of the 1988 Matignon and 1998 Noumea Accords that have presided over the territory’s peace and prosperity for the past 30 years.

The referendum will address fundamental sovereignty issues: the territory’s international status; the fate of five key sovereign powers (defence, foreign affairs, currency, law and order, and justice); and New Caledonian ‘citizenship’ (voting and employment rights for longstanding residents, including indigenous Kanaks).

On 25 October a summary paper was released, the result of an ongoing French mission headed by respected jurist and founder of the Accords, Alain Christnacht. Christnacht has overseen a number of missions from Paris to Noumea in the last year, convening roundtable and one-on-one discussions with the various political parties.

The value of the Christnacht report lies in its specific identification of areas of agreement and disagreement across all parties, which will form the basis of the next step in negotiations.

All parties agree on maintaining the current three provinces, albeit with pro-independence groups wanting a separate election for members of the territory-wide Congress (currently elected by members of the provincial assemblies). Pro-independence groups and some pro-France groups want the more grassroots communes to belong to New Caledonia rather than the French state. All groups favour continuing the current collegial system of ‘gouvernement’, or Cabinet, with membership proportionate to party representation in the Congress. One pro-France group supports a majority supplement to boost the representation of the majority party, and one pro-independence group wants to include a member of the Customary Senate.

All parties support continued economic re-balancing between the mainly European south and the mainly Kanak North and Island provinces, although pro-France groups want an adjustment of the formula of Congress seats to reflect better the influx of people into the south.

Significant differences centre understandably on citizenship, with pro-independence groups favouring full nationality and pro-France groups preferring a New Caledonian citizenship within France. But even here, all groups agree on a ‘clear and accessible citizenship’ to replace the current (temporary) fixed definition of citizenship limiting the number of those who can vote in provincial elections.

On the five remaining sovereign powers, differences are unsurprisingly wide. Pro-independence groups want a new state that will then decide on what partner might take up these powers, whether it be France or some other state (a perspective articulated by assassinated leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou). Pro-France groups instead would like a sharing with France of such powers as foreign affairs, justice, and public order, with guarantees on public freedom.

There was agreement on defining common New Caledonian values, drawing on both Christian and Melanesian values, with the Christnacht team drafting a seven-page Charter of Values that could replace or supplement the existing Noumea Accord Preamble in any new arrangement.

A second step forward was the successful 7 November meeting of the 15th Committee of Noumea Accord Signatories, a steering group guiding implementation of the Accord and the referendum. Unlike in the past, the meeting was attended by all parties, who were able to discuss and agree on a range of difficult issues. These included a further mechanism to handle the vexed question of the electoral roll for the final referendum (albeit only after fundamental disagreement led to a proposal by the French high commissioner), the endorsement of the Christnacht report and a continued role for the Chistnacht mission, and agreement on temporary extension of controversial raw nickel exports to China, which were the cause of economy-halting demonstrations last year.

New Caledonia’s new high commissioner, Thierry Lataste (formerly President Francois Hollande’s Directeur du Cabinet, a founding negotiator of the Noumea Accords and a highly respected French figure in New Caledonia), announced generous French funding for development, and in particular for addressing the critical issue of persistent isolation of Kanak youth.

Such assistance is sorely needed. In late October the territory saw a return of violence to St Louis, a village to the north of Noumea. St Louis has long been a barometer of Kanak discontent; its local clan chief Roch Wamytan is an pro-independence leader with a regional and global profile. In the 80s and 90s rightist pro-France groups fomented differences between the local (pro-France) Wallisian population and the Kanaks, until the State moved the Wallisians to a different location.

But on this occasion the cause of the violence was simple delinquency. A roadside police interception of a known offender ended in the fatal shooting of a young Kanak recidivist, setting off days of road blockages, stone-throwing and shootings. Whatever the cause, a return to violence and protracted road blockages in a key urban area is not a positive development as the territory begins to address the most difficult areas of difference for the future referendum.

Photo: Flickr/Jason Meaden

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