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Sensitivities flare in New Caledonia

Emmanuel Macron will visit New Caledonia in May, amid increased tension as the territory’s November deadline for an independence referendum nears.

Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia (Photo: Sekundo/Flickr)
Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia (Photo: Sekundo/Flickr)
Published 9 Mar 2018 

Sensitivities have heightened as New Caledonia prepares in earnest for an independence referendum by November. Despite pro-France pressure, Emmanuel Macron’s government has now stated categorically that it won’t take sides. The mainstream independence group has sent a warning of its own.

In what is shaping-up to be a momentous year for Australia’s close neighbour, New Caledonia’s longer-term residents will vote on the final phase of agreements in train since the end the 1980s civil war. 

The 1998 Noumea Accord has generally presided over peace and economic development in New Caledonia, with local governments acquiring more autonomy, leaving the fate of remaining key powers unknown until the vote this year. Many believe the outcome will see 60% of voters support remaining with France. However, census changes and restrictions to voter eligibility (essentially only long-term residents and indigenous Kanaks are eligible to vote) raise uncertainties. If voters say “no” to independence the first time around, up to two further votes must be held before 2021. 

The main political dynamic centres on differences between parties advocating independence and those wanting to remain under French rule. Both sides are divided and include extreme elements. A further complication is ongoing violence, burglaries, and personal attacks by young Kanaks against wealthy Europeans, which reflect continuing social inequalities but are easily manipulated by each side for political gain.  

All players have been involved in ongoing French efforts to shepherd discussion and organise the referendum. Besides the locally elected congress and its proportional “government” (Cabinet), a Committee of Accord Signatories and subcommittees meet regularly, and two commissions have identified legal aspects of future options as well as key areas of agreement and disagreement.  

In December 2017 French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe set up a Committee of Elders representing civil society and a “Committee of 10” (C10) key pro-independence and loyalist party leaders to agree on the date and question of the vote. If three fifths of the Congress cannot agree on these by April, then the French State will decide.

Things became unstuck last week. Two minority loyalist leaders quit the C10 after its 25 February meeting, in response to a Facebook post by the largest loyalist group that reported agreement on a 4 November date for the referendum and a “statement of motivation” for the vote. The two leaders criticised the latter’s references to the “Kanak people” and the effect of colonisation on them, and to New Caledonia remaining on the UN decolonisation list if voters oppose independence.

The statement drew directly on the Noumea Accord preamble and represented nothing new. The leaders’ reaction shows the potential for this delicate final phase of negotiations to become hostage to domestic politicking and loyalist divisions.

In the same week, raw nerves were struck during a visit by former prime minister, now Macron MP, Manuel Valls, who heads a parliamentary committee on New Caledonia. Addressing the local Congress, Valls called on Macron to declare support for New Caledonia remaining French. Macron alone of recent presidents has not expressed this position, although during his campaign he “personally” expressed support for New Caledonia remaining French. Independence supporters immediately rejected Valls’s call. 

Édouard Philippe gave an interview on 5 March addressing both of these loyalist pressures. He regretted the withdrawal from the C10 by some leaders and urged that dialogue continue. Philippe quoted the Noumea Accord itself on decolonisation and “new realities” engaging “the Kanak people”, and referred to a UN delegation in Noumea this week to undertake an “audit” of the decolonisation process. He also noted strong international interest the forthcoming referendum.

Philippe declined to take a position on the outcome of the referendum, saying the government would not favour either side, nor influence the result. He reaffirmed the “common destiny” of New Caledonia’s people, the irreversible handovers of power over the last thirty years, and the Macron government’s determination to organise a vote recognised as legitimate. All of this, he said, required constant political dialogue “with everyone taking their rightful place”.

No doubt to address underlying loyalist fears about security, but also designed as a warning, the pro-independence Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) issued its own statement. It condemned recent violence in eight towns, and rejected stigmatising (Kanak) youth generally. The statement also cautioned that the plan for “Kanaky–New Caledonia” should not be revised because of violence by irresponsible individuals. 

Tensions are rising in New Caledonia with the Committee of Signatories preparing to meet in Paris on 27 March; decisions on the referendum’s date and question required before April; and Macron to visit in May.

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