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France precipitates abrupt end to Noumea Accord in New Caledonia

Posted By on July 20, 2021 @ 13:30

The French government’s decision to hold New Caledonia’s third independence referendum in December this year signals the early termination of the Noumea Accord, the last of the pacts that have underpinned stability in Australia’s near neighbour for 30 years. While parameters have been proposed for what happens in the near and longer terms, unease and division prevail, [1] with little time now to resolve deep differences.

The announcement of the early referendum date—it could have been held as late as November 2022, the preferred independence party position—came after a difficult meeting in Paris [2]. A major independence party declined to attend, and a loyalist party leader pulled out, refusing to even discuss a possible later date.

Overseas Territories Minister Sébastien Lecornu acknowledged that France’s decision [3] was not consensual but fell within its constitutional powers. Emmanuel Macron’s government no doubt had an eye to France’s presidential and parliamentary elections in April and June 2022, seeking to head off mutual complications between the New Caledonian and national campaigns. New Caledonian issues are hardly on the national agenda. However, it was bloody violence after independence leaders took police hostages, between the two rounds of presidential elections in 1988, that brought civil disturbances over independence to a head. No French administration would want to risk a repeat. And national parties do take a position on New Caledonian issues locally. On the other hand, the ‘loss’ of New Caledonia to France should the vote favour independence, or the resurgence of violence after a ‘no’ vote, may well dent presidential candidates’ campaigns.

France is also under pressure from the United Nations and the Pacific Islands Forum to organise the vote impartially, after Kanaks boycotted a disastrous 1987 referendum.

Clearly the risk of an earlier vote was judged worthwhile, possibly assuming a third rejection of independence. The first two referendums favoured staying with France, but saw an increase in independence support from 43.3% in 2018 to a not inconsiderable 47.6% in 2020, primarily from indigenous Kanaks. Even if the third referendum again rejects independence, such a large indigenous pro-independence minority means the issues will persist [4].

Independence leaders, hoping for the maximum time to muster support beyond 50%, responded to the announcement by noting that the decision was unilateral [5] and that they didn’t support it [6]. The pill was bitter, particularly for the oldest independence party, the Union Calédonienne [7]. It had attended the meeting and offered a major shift in its position by conceding ongoing relations with France beyond independence, something its coalition partner Palika has supported since 2017.

Despite clumsy handling of the Paris meeting, and independence party reactions to the December referendum date, the meeting made some tentative progress. A short unpublicised paper was agreed by those who did attend that commits the parties to work together for a common future and sets parameters for what happens immediately after the referendum.

Regardless of the outcome, an 18-month transition period follows the vote. Territorial partition is rejected. In the event of a ‘yes’ to independence, there would be immediate transitions (for example, curtailed French financial transfers), longer term transitions (training around justice and law and order), efforts towards a partnership with France (heavily qualified as ‘without guarantee of success’) and unspecified access to double nationality. In the event of a ‘no’, the right to self-determination would remain, New Caledonia would stay on the UN list of non-self-governing territories for the transition, responsibilities already transferred would remain, and France would continue its support.

Most significantly for independence supporters, the restricted electorate on which local congress elections are based would be ‘partially opened’, altering the fundamental concession of the peace agreements since 1988 that protected the rights of longstanding residents as opposed to newer arrivals.

The paper foreshadows ad hoc discussions beyond the third referendum to be followed by a further ‘planning referendum’ in mid-2023. In the case of a ‘no’ to independence, this vote would endorse institutional and governance changes necessary with the lapse of the Noumea Accord.

In the case of independence, a vote would relate to the ‘constitution’ of a new state, specifying ‘the link with France’. Here, fundamental questions arise as to who would vote. Independence leaders would no doubt favour only longstanding residents.

Separately, on 15 July, France’s high commissioner in Noumea [8] released a longer discussion document [9] on the various consequences of either a ‘yes’ vote or a ‘no’ vote.

Meanwhile, independence leaders have finally agreed on a president [10] in the local government, after five months of discord. They had withdrawn from cabinet [11] over grievances at their treatment in the collegial government, and subsequently won a majority for the first time.

These developments show that December’s third independence vote is only the beginning of uncertain negotiations for the future. And New Caledonia is back on the security agenda for Australia after 30 years.

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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/france-precipitates-abrupt-end-to-noumea-accord-in-new-caledonia/

URLs in this post:

[1] unease and division prevail,: https://insidestory.org.au/third-time-lucky-in-new-caledonia/

[2] difficult meeting in Paris: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/new-caledonia-eyes-final-vote-independence

[3] acknowledged that France’s decision: https://www.lnc.nc/article/nouvelle-caledonie/politique/gros-plan-il-n-y-a-pas-consensus-mais-l-etat-a-tranche

[4] the issues will persist: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/Fisher_New%20Caledonia%27s%20independence%20referendum_2.pdf

[5] noting that the decision was unilateral: https://www.lnc.nc/article/nouvelle-caledonie/politique/l-uni-s-inquiete-de-la-date-du-referendum

[6] they didn’t support it: https://www.lnc.nc/article-direct/nord/ouegoa/politique/referendum-le-palika-prend-acte-de-la-date-du-12-decembre-et-devoilera-sa-strategie-mardi

[7] the Union Calédonienne: https://radiococotier.nc/2021/06/02/lunion-caledonienne-anticipe/

[8] France’s high commissioner in Noumea: https://www.lnc.nc/article/nouvelle-caledonie/politique/gros-plan-le-document-sur-le-oui-et-le-non-est-disponible

[9] longer discussion document: https://www.nouvelle-caledonie.gouv.fr/content/download/8400/64716/file/Nouvelle-Cale%CC%81donie%20OUI-NON.pdf

[10] agreed on a president: https://www.lnc.nc/article-direct/nouvelle-caledonie/politique/le-palika-annonce-que-louis-mapou-sera-le-president-du-17e-gouvernement-de-la-nouvelle-caledonie

[11] withdrawn from cabinet: https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/nouvellecaledonie/l-uni-et-uc-flnks-expliquent-la-demission-de-leurs-deux-listes-923692.html

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