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France, New Caledonia and the Indo-Pacific

Posted By on May 20, 2024 @ 15:11

How France manages the first outbreak of serious violence in New Caledonia in 40 years will affect not only its future role there but its acceptance as a resident Pacific, and Indo-Pacific, power.

The violence of indigenous independence supporters, many of them very young, signals that the inconclusiveness of earlier peace agreements risks taking New Caledonia back to the bloodshed of the 1980s. The unrest is targeting the capital, Noumea, and its population of Europeans, who mostly support staying French.

The wounds are deep. The peace agreements that ended violence in the 1980s largely succeeded because of difficult and constant compromises by the French state, loyalist parties and independence parties. Mutual trust in the promises of those agreements to work towards self-determination underpinned the French state conducting three referendums in New Caledonia from 2018 to 2021. The first two were impeccably organised and showed, respectively, that 56.7 percent and 53.3 percent opposed independence.

But the state dropped the ball in a third referendum in 2021, sticking with an intended voting date despite indigenous requests for postponement. At the time, hundreds of Kanaks had died from Covid-19. Their leaders said they could not ask their people to campaign or vote when their traditions required lengthy mourning rituals. The resulting indigenous boycott saw the count of opposition to independence soar to 96.5 percent.

Since then, divisions have deepened. Loyalists, backed by the government in Paris, say all three votes were valid and want to cement the territory as part of France. Independence groups reject the third vote and seek another; some refuse to participate in discussion about the future. They rejected Macron’s offer of a chemin de pardon (path of forgiveness) when he visited in July 2023. They did not attend a meeting he convened, and their supporters did not turn out for his major speech there, sending a strong message of discontent.

Macron then threatened unilateral action unless local parties came to an agreement. Informal discussions between some parties from each side in December ended with wide divergences, including over a further independence vote and voter eligibility.

To set a deadline, Macron introduced legislation postponing local elections from April 2024 to December 2025, and he put forward another bill that would amend the French constitution, imposing broader voter eligibility and thereby diluting the Kanak voting share, unless locals reached agreement before the end of June.

Demonstrations erupted into violence [1] on 13 May, the day France’s National Assembly debated imposing from Paris the enlargement of voter eligibility. The destruction perpetrated by young Kanaks signalled not only to France and loyalist parties who were their targets but also to Kanak leaders and neighbouring countries the depth of distress of a new generation who felt disrespected and excluded from determining the future of their homeland.

How France responds will be decisive for its sustainable future in New Caledonia.

New Caledonia’s population is about 270,000. In the census of 2019, indigenous Kanaks were 41 percent, Europeans 29 percent and other Pacific islanders and ‘others’ composed the remaining 30 percent. Another census is due this year.

Kanaks may now exceed 45 percent, since there have been net departures of about 2000 people a year since 2015, almost all presumably non-indigenous. Moreover, some people in the ‘others’ category, which includes the sub-categories of ‘mixed’ and ‘Caldeonian’, would also be Kanaks.  And the Kanak share of the population will rise, especially since recent developments may contribute to an increase in non-Kanak departures.

While New Caledonia’s neighbours have quietly supported the peace agreements, they remain concerned about the interests of the islanders in the non-self-governing French territory. Some of them took New Caledonia to the United Nations Decolonisation Committee in 1986, ensuring annual UN scrutiny of the territory and France’s dealings with it since then. The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) has regularly sent missions monitoring implementation of the Noumea Accord and observed each referendum, expressing serious reservations on the third.  The Melanesian Spearhead Group (Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and New Caledonia’s FLNKS independence coalition) was formed in the mid-1980s specifically to support Kanak independence claims.

With the eruption of violence, their silence has broken. Making Australia’s highest-level statement in decades, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia was closely monitoring the situation and encouraged all parties to work together constructively to shape the institutional future of New Caledonia. PIF Secretary-General Henry Puna said he was not surprised by the riots, noting it was unfortunate that the third referendum had been allowed to go ahead amid the pandemic. PIF chair and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown said New Caledonia and French Polynesia had been included in the forum ‘in recognition of their calls for greater autonomy coming from their people’, and supported providing help to prevent conflict. Vanuatu Prime Minister and Melanesian Spearhead Group  Chair Charlot Salwai publicly opposed France’s constitutional change and urged a return to the spirit of the peace agreements and the sending of a dialogue mission led by a mutually respected person.

France has done much to regain the acceptance and trust of the region in recent decades. Responding to island governments’ visceral opposition to its policies in the 1980s, France abandoned nuclear testing in the region and gave greater autonomy to its Pacific territories. It did so by respecting local governments and people.

Macron has articulated an Indo-Pacific vision for France that’s firmly based on its sovereignty in the Pacific. But, to maintain France’s claims as an Indo-Pacific power, he must listen to the large and growing indigenous minority in its pre-eminent Pacific territory, New Caledonia. And he must listen to the appeals of Pacific island governments, so they and France can move forward together with humility and respect.

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[1] erupted into violence: https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/nouvellecaledonie/province-sud/direct-la-nouvelle-caledonie-se-reveille-apres-une-nuit-d-affrontements-et-de-violence-1487843.html

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