France and New Caledonia: reinventing ‘common destiny’
13 Dec 2016|
110704-N-CZ945-520 NOUMEA, New Caledonia (July 4, 2011) A sailor of the French navy holds the flag of France for a wreath laying ceremony in commemoration of the Fourth of July and in memory of the American presence in New Caledonia during World War II. U.S. 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) and embarked staff are underway on patrol in the 7th Fleet area of responsibility, and are in New Caledonia for a port visit. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Kenneth R. HendrixReleased)

The political debate over the future of New Caledonia is heating up. In preparation for the 2018 referendum on independence, all parties in the territory are engaged in sensitive negotiations. The state is demonstrating its involvement in this process with two policy approaches. While the French government is committed to conducting a peaceful referendum which would secure New Caledonia’s future within the French Republic, Paris is also promoting the gradual regional integration of its largest territory in the South Pacific.

The next two years will be crucial for New Caledonia. Following the 1998 Accords de Nouméa, New Caledonians will be consulted in 2018 in a referendum on the institutional future of the territory. The phrasing of the question has not been decided and it will be very difficult to decide which type of institutional ties with France will be submitted to the vote.

France wants New Caledonia to remain in the Republic and is focused on demonstrating how the territory benefits from being part of France. Early November, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls unveiled a series of policies serving this goal during the 15th New Caledonian Committee in Paris, which gathered 50 representatives drawn from all parties involved in the negotiations.

Politically, Valls was expected to solve the debate between pro and anti-independence movements regarding the composition of the electorate. Valls refused the pro-independence leaders’ wish that all Kanaks, the indigenous population mostly in favour of independence, would be automatically registered for the vote. However, he confirmed that there’ll be a census of all Kanaks in order to inform them on how to register. Through its conciliatory approach to the negotiations, the state is demonstrating the importance of its political involvement for the archipelago’s future.

Recent ministerial visits to New Caledonia have seen France exercise its sovereignty with a conciliatory touch. The French Minister for Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem visited Noumea in October to outline the government’s plan for education. Symbolically, she inaugurated a new high school named after Michel Rocard, France’s Prime Minister who put an end to the violence of the 1980s by negotiating the Matignon Agreements in 1988 with Kanak leaders. French Ministers for Justice and Interior will respectively visit New Caledonia in December and February to announce more policies on law and security. Valls has already announced that the state would send more police with new equipment to Noumea to maintain security.

Economically, Paris has promised to invest around €380 million in New Caledonia within five years. That’s another strong symbol because Noumea constitutes the only territory protected from the cuts that the French government is imposing on its funding to regional authorities. This investment will mainly support 10 programs pertaining to renewable energy and the construction of social housing. Moreover, the state will lend about €200 million to New Caledonian mining companies suffering from the nickel price crisis. These policies also demonstrate that France intends to remain involved in the territory’s future, since this investment is programmed until 2021.

Strategically, France supports the regional integration of its territory. Sharing its diplomatic authority with the New Caledonian government enables the French state to show that a non-independent New Caledonia still benefits from a degree of autonomy in its foreign relations. That concession helps consolidate France’s sovereignty over its territory while Paris continues to oversee New Caledonia’s main international relationships.

Consistent with that approach, state and local authorities have conducted successful diplomatic campaigns within regional and global institutions for New Caledonia to have its own representatives to international organisations. Their main achievement has been Noumea’s full membership to the Pacific Islands Forum this September. The territory became a member of the Pacific Region Committee of the World Health Organisation in October. Last week, Noumea became associate member of the International Organisation of La Francophonie.

Support for Noumea’s regional integration is part of French policy-makers’ intention to elaborate different sub-Pacific strategies in Melanesia and in Polynesia, instead of a ‘one size fits all’ Pacific diplomacy model. New Caledonia has the ambition to represent Melanesia’s interests within these international institutions. In parallel, the President of the New Caledonian government visited Canberra in October to promote New Caledonia’s economic diplomacy and to explain his territory’s level of autonomy to his Australian counterparts. New Caledonia needs to convince its neighbours that it is not just a proxy for Paris’ diplomatic interests, but serves its own as well.

Australia supports France’s local and regional policies that reinforce French sovereignty over New Caledonia. Now building a strategic partnership with Paris, Canberra wishes to see France remain in the South Pacific in order to strengthen the Western alliance and maintain the region’s security.

The latest polls now show that New Caledonia is likely to remain under French sovereignty. But as the referendum approaches, political and social tensions have resurged. French policy-makers must frame the referendum so that it satisfies all parties and work hard on maintaining peace and stability after 2018, whatever the outcome. This two-fold task is extremely difficult and will be closely followed by neighbouring states, especially Australia.