New Caledonia, our French neighbour, sits just off the Queensland coast, but well off our strategic radar screen. Our Defence White Paper 2013 doesn’t mention it, nor even France’s role in the South Pacific. However, France’s 2013 Defence White Paper refers to its political and maritime power deriving from its Pacific ‘collectivities’ (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, Clipperton) and to strategic collaboration with Australia. It’s worth evaluating how, and to what degree, France’s Pacific role intersects with Australia’s strategic interests.
France has kept its Pacific collectivities out of the news for decades, implementing measures to improve its regional image after stopping nuclear testing in French Polynesia and negotiating an end to bloodshed over New Caledonian independence demands.
In New Caledonia, the 1988 Matignon and 1998 Noumea Accords deferred a long-promised independence referendum, and scheduled transfers of some responsibilities, underpinned bybetter sharing of economic (mainly nickel) revenues. France hoped to buy time and economic prosperity, increasing local stakes in, and support for, its continued sovereignty.
Well, time’s up. In May 2014, the last local elections were held under the Accords. The resultant Congress will decide whether to initiate an independence referendum process by 2018—if three-fifths of members can agree. If not, France must do so. Agreement isn’t a foregone conclusion. New Caledonia’s politics centre on staying with France or independence. Although the local government is collegial, the pro-France groups have held the notional majority since the 1970s when France deliberately imported French citizens to outnumber the generally pro-independence Kanaks. But neither group holds three-fifths of the seats. Indeed, the 2014 election saw the pro-France majority narrow (to 29 of the 54 seats) as the pro-independence group increased support (to 25). So some collaboration has to occur.
The path isn’t at all clear for early agreement on the timing and subject of a referendum process. The process raises sensitive identity and constitutional considerations.
Two papers have been developed to focus discussion on the post-Accord future. Two senior French lawyers wrote the October 2013 Institutional Future of New Caledonia which, unsurprisingly, favours staying with France, but sets out fairly dispassionately the legalities under each of four options (full sovereignty, partnership, extended autonomy and continued autonomy). In April 2014, the Customary Senate, a Noumea Accord institution of Kanak chiefs who advise on matters touching Kanak custom, published the Charter of the Kanak People, describing Kanak identity and victimisation under colonisation, and identifying minimal requirements for the future, mainly respect and equality. Interestingly, few pro-independence players (either the chiefs, or the key Kanak political leaders) use the ‘i’ word in broad public messages: they speak of ‘sovereignty’, ‘emancipation’, and ‘self-determination’ rather than ‘independence’, suggesting scope for compromise. The Charter refers to ‘shared sovereignty’ with ‘no effect on the territorial integrity of the State’.
But that doesn’t mean independence aspirations don’t remain. In June, a Kanak protest against environmental degradation from nickel development resulted in the shooting of two policemen. Pro-independence groups can’t agree on allocating the lucrative nickel portfolio in local government. One group came to blows over a boozy lunch in June, when a political adviser was murdered.
The pro-France side has its problems too. France’s most senior representative in Noumea, High Commissioner Jean-Jacques Brot, resigned on 19 July in the middle of a visit by the ‘Overseas France’ Minister, when the Minister announced a mission to prepare for post-Accord discussions. The resignation followed months of controversy, including suggestions that Brot was too close to a conservative pro-France group.
Australia has tended to stand apart from internal developments in the French Pacific collectivities, tacitly supporting the French state. After all, it’s useful having a now constructive, well-resourced partner in the region that’s a G20 Member, a Permanent Member of the Security Council and NATO, leader of the EU’s useful regional presence, and host to the Secretariat for the Pacific Community headquarters (in Noumea). France also participates in defence exercises and the FRANZ arrangement of fisheries surveillance and emergency assistance, and is beginning to share its maritime and environmental expertise. Moreover, France generously bankrolls its collectivities, to the tune of at least US$ 2 billion each for New Caledonia and French Polynesia each year. If France’s hold were to be shaken substantially, Australia would have to meet some of the shortfall.
Regionally, pro-independence groups draw on the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights for inspiration and support—the Kanak Charter specifically calls for regional country support for the Kanak people in asserting their right to sovereignty on this basis. The timing of outcomes for the future of New Caledonia will have implications for French Polynesia on past form, but also for Papua New Guinea, when the Bougainville Agreement, itself partly based on the Noumea Accord, reaches a turning point around 2016; for Solomon Islands now operating without RAMSI; for a fragile Fiji; and for neighbouring Vanuatu.
Those interconnections mean we should be more aware of what’s happening in our French neighbourhood, particularly in New Caledonia.
Denise Fisher, author of France in the South Pacific: power and politics (ANU Press 2013), is a former senior DFAT officer who has served as Australian’s Consul General in Noumea. She is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University Centre for European Studies. Image courtesy of Flickr user Jason Meaden.