Russia, Azerbaijan exploit New Caledonian strife against France; China stays mum
12 Jun 2024|

As the recent troubles in New Caledonia gradually calm down, the reputational damage for France is becoming increasingly obvious. But what is primarily a French domestic problem is being exploited by external actors.

The more tenuous the relationship of the external actor with the region, the more radical the narrative and the more active the support. Azerbaijan and Russia have instrumentalised the situation to settle scores with France, as they have in other parts of the world. China could turn out to be the main winner in the end, though, so far, it’s keeping quiet.

France’s regional image has taken a hit. South Pacific island states have expressed concerns regarding the situation in New Caledonia. Charlot Salwai, the new prime minister of Vanuatu and chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), composed of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the New Caledonian pro-independence FLNKS organisation, reaffirmed support and blamed France for the unrest.

Mark Brown, who is the president of the Pacific Islands Forum and prime minister of the Cook Islands, called for greater autonomy. The influential Pacific Conference of Churches has expressed its solidarity with its sisters and brothers from Kanaky, and several Pacific islands leaders have blamed Paris for refusing to ‘listen’ to Kanaks’ demands.

Thirty years of France’s patient building of its legitimacy as a Pacific power is among the casualties. Yet, Pacific criticism has remained relatively moderate, and some states individually refrained from formulating any official critique.

The most radical attack on the French response to the unrest came from outside the region. Azerbaijan has little or no interests in the South Pacific, but its president, Ilham Aliyev, is determined to make France pay for its support to Armenia. In July 2023, he instigated the creation of the Baku Initiative Group with the sole purpose of supporting liberation movements against ‘French colonialism’, calling New Caledonia a nasty remainder of the French colonial empire. Azerbaijani flags started appearing at pro-independence rallies in New Caledonia long before the unrest. A controversial memorandum of understanding was also signed with the Congress of New Caledonia. The Baku Initiative Group has since condemned repression by French forces conducting similar operations in French Polynesia.

Unsurprisingly, Russia has joined the choir. On 18 May, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expressed the view that the unrest in New Caledonia was ‘stemming from the lack of finality in the process of its decolonisation and [was] yet another confirmation that the French policy towards its former colonies, renamed “overseas territories,” [was] reaching an impasse’. Moscow is also considered by the French authorities to be behind the massive cyberattack launched against New Caledonia on the eve of Emmanuel Macron’s visit.

Unlike Azerbaijan, Russia is a Pacific power. Moscow also a history of support to pro-independence movements dating back to the USSR and has had longstanding ties with the New Caledonian one. However, that support has become much more active since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. In the context of the war in Ukraine, any opportunity to attack French positions anywhere in the world is welcome to Russia.

The unfolding situation could eventually benefit a third party, though. China’s efforts to establish a strong security presence in the region have so far had mixed success. New Caledonia, like Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia (the other French Pacific territories), is strategically located between the United States and Asia, and Beijing is eyeing off the nickel reserves of the archipelago.

China, which has for years also cultivated strong ties with the FLNKS, therefore has every reason to rejoice about the possible weakening of French standing in the region, but it has just as many reasons to remain discreet. It would be counterproductive for China to expose itself and generate potentially negative reaction in the region. Troubles in New Caledonia act as a foil, supposedly demonstrating the nefarious character of the French presence in the archipelago. Azerbaijan is moreover doing the propaganda work at no cost for China.

Whatever the motives, a same anticolonial narrative also gives a semblance of unity to countries that are otherwise divergent. It matters little that New Caledonia is run by a special status defined by article XIII of the French constitution, and in which the pro-independence political parties control the government, the congress and two provinces out of three.

Since the Matignon Agreements (1988) and the Noumea Accord (1998), pro-independence parties have been given vast powers extending to all aspects of the social, political and economic life of the territory; only defence, security, justice, the currency and higher education remain prerogatives of the French state. And nobody seems to be willing either to consider that independence is only one of the possible outcomes of a self-determination process, as asserted by Resolution 2625 of the United Nations General Assembly.

In a post-truth world in which power competition is again the order of the day, everything is fair game.  And what’s more politically saleable than a good old colonial conflict? The consequences may ultimately affect the region far beyond France’s interests.