After a phase of reluctance, talks on New Caledonia's political future now seem to flourish both within pro and anti-independence parties and sometimes between opposing camps as well. But all in different formats and with a divided approach.
The trend comes just days ahead of French Home Affairs and Overseas minister Gérald Darmanin, who is expected to arrive in New Caledonia on 24 November for a two-day visit to pursue discussions about the French Pacific entity's political and institutional future.
High on the agenda is a draft presented by Darmanin during the last roundtable in Paris last September with the goal of an amendment to the French Constitution.
French President Emmanuel Macron said during a visit last July that he wished the constitutional change to be put to the vote in Versailles early 2024.
Macron said he based his approach on the fact that, after holding three self-determination referendums between 2018 and 2021, all of which has resulted in a majority of "no", he now considered that New Caledonia wanted to remain French.
However, the validity of the third referendum is contested by some components of the FLNKS (Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front), especially one of its main member parties, hard-line Union Calédonienne (UC).
After the Paris talks, UC stressed it would not take part in discussions when Darmanin travels to New Caledonia later this month.
But UC added it would make a decision after its annual Congress.
Moderate pro-independence parties ready to talk
Quasi-simultaneously, at the weekend, the main member parties of FLNKS have all held their annual conventions.
Another FLNKS component, the PALIKA (Kanak Liberation Party), held its yearly Congress (11-12 November) on the island of Lifou (Loyalty group, North-east of New Caledonia's main island).
The theme chosen this year was "Final path for Kanaky-New Caledonia).
After discussions focusing on the desired strategy towards independence after the autonomy Nouméa Accord (signed in 1998) reaches the end of its 25-year lifespan, its spokesman, the soft-spoken Charles Washetine told local media the discussions were about "opening a new political cycle" even though the current context was "difficult" because, he said, the FLNKS was "not in the best of shapes" and that the (right-wing) pro-French parties were "totally disoriented".
PALIKA advocates for a future sovereignty "in partnership" with France.
Washetine told Nouvelle-Calédonie la 1ère it was difficult for pro-independence parties, moderate or hard-line, to find a way forward, because draft put on the table by Darmanin "is going backwards if we compare to the Nouméa Accord".
The main question, he said, was how to find a way out of the present situation and not backtrack on the Nouméa Accord's contents.
But he assured PALIKA still wants to take part in forthcoming talks with Darmanin and called the other FLNKS members (including UC) to do the same and not pursue with its empty chair" approach.
Darmanin's draft touches on sensitive subjects such as New Caledonia's future Citizenship and who would quality to acquire it, who would be entitled to vote in future local elections, when and how a new self-determination referendum could take place.
UPM (Union Progressiste en Mélanésie), another FLNKS moderate party, was also holding its two-day Congress at the weekend.
"At this stage, we can't say yet whether we will reach an agreement", UPM leader Victor Tutugoro was reported as saying.
He also stressed the need to continue negotiating to clarify what the Darmanin-styled "martyr" really implies in terms of the right to self-determination, the list of entitled registered voters or future transfer of powers from France to New Caledonia.
And Union Calédonienne was also holding its annual Congress at the weekend, during which incumbent President Daniel Goa was also re-elected.
Union Calédonienne's empty chair approach
In a speech to members, he confirmed UC does not intend to take part in talks with the French minister and that the Darmanin draft, in its current format, was still regarded as not acceptable, insulting and humiliating.
On the pro-France side of the spectrum, head of the "Loyalists" and former French government minister Sonia Backès said even though her party has had "extremely constructive" talks with PALIKA, UPM and other pro-independence parties such as UNI (Union Nationale pour l'Indépendance), UC should also participate.
Pro-France parties also divided
"If Daniel Goa wants his view on the right to self-determination to be heard (...) he has to come to the table. If he doesn't join in, there won't be any new referendum", she told NC La 1ère at the weekend.
Backès's Les Loyalistes and other pro-France parties (such as Avenir Ensemble (AE, Future Together) or Calédonie Ensemble have also met the moderate parties of FLNKS, but UC has remained elusive.
Meanwhile, in yet another format, under the auspices of French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc, Paris special envoy Rémi Bastille and several ministerial "sherpas", other talks have also taken place in recent weeks, still as part of preparations for Darmanin's visit and discussions on proposals and counter-proposals for the "martyr" draft.
"Three working sessions (on the working document suggested by Darmanin) have been organised", the French High Commission stated in a release, adding that "each delegation has been able to express its point of view and present its suggestions".
Under this format, participants included pro-France parties (Loyalistes, Rassemblement, Calédonie Ensemble) and on the pro-independence side, UNI.
But not UC.
Avenir Ensemble, even though it was not part of this format, organised its own, separate round of talks with PALIKA, UPM and UNI.