Analysis -The French government's number two and three were in New Caledonia this weekend to continue tense discussions on the French Pacific territory's political future, but also on urgent steps to assist the ailing nickel industry.
This was Home Affairs and Overseas minister Gérald Darmanin's fifth travel to New Caledonia for the past twelve months and there could be a sixth travel to Nouméa next month.
French Finance minister Bruno Lemaire had also travelled to New Caledonia previously, as a then-minister for agriculture.
While in New Caledonia, they followed sometimes joint, sometimes different schedules, each one focusing on their respective priorities: politics for Darmanin, economy and nickel for Lemaire.
But they came back together for a joint television interview on Sunday, in front of a panel of local media.
Darmanin's visit was once again monopolised by a series of meetings with both pro-France and pro-independence parties, as was the case for the previous series of meetings held in Paris in September.
His goal, this time again, was to get all parties around the table at the same time in what has often been referred to as the "tripartite", "all players" session with France, the pro-independence camp and the pro-France camp parties.
However, since September, one of the main members of the FLNKS pro-independence front, the Union Calédonienne (UC) has said it would not attend "tripartite" sessions and only wanted to speak to France in a "bilateral" (only two players, one-to-one mode).
UC confirmed at its recent Congress that it regarded Darmanin's proposals in the form of a "martyr" document as "unacceptable".
At the weekend, Darmanin once again agreed to meet UC in "bilateral" mode and even to spend more time with them than the rest of the delegations.
While there were few comments from political parties after the meetings with the French minister, he expressed disappointment at UC's refusal to take part in the "all players" sessions.
Darmanin ready to come back next week
He even told local media that if he obtained an assurance that UC accepts to change its stance on this, he would be ready to travel again to New Caledonia as soon as early December (4-5).
The date is no coincidence as Nouméa also plays host, from 2 to 8 December, to the South Pacific Defence Ministers Meeting (SPDMM) and that French Defence minister Sébastien Lecornu (who is also a former minister for Overseas) will also be in attendance.
The draft "martyr" document, submitted by Darmanin in September, was regarded as a preparation for amendments to the French Constitution that French President Macron said he would like to put to the vote early 2024.
The French constitutional amendment will specifically touch on the special provisions dedicated to New Caledonia.
It is believed since September, several rounds of separate work sessions in New Caledonia have now produced four amended versions of the "martyr" document.
The main subjects of the draft are also the most contentious ones: a New Caledonian citizenship that could be introduced and that would be compatible with the French citizenship, the criteria to qualify as New Caledonian citizen (now the pre-condition is believed to have been agreed to at least ten years of uninterrupted residence), the reform of the electoral roll for local elections and future ways to express desires for change, otherwise than by a binary yes/no referendum.
New Year's Eve deadline
The electoral roll had been "frozen" under the 1998 Nouméa Accord and only French citizens born in New Caledonia or having resided there before 1998 were allowed to vote at local elections (provincial assemblies).
However, the provisions were not in keeping with universally-recognized democracy rule: the "frozen" roll is believed to currently deprive up to 12,000 voters who would otherwise be eligible to cast their votes.
The State Council (the highest administrative court in France) has been requested to provide a ruling on this matter, especially with regards to the proposed amendment's compliance with the Constitution, Darmanin said.
The ruling is expected to be delivered during the first week of December.
"And on December 31, a text will be submitted to modify the electoral roll, so that (New Caledonia's provincial) elections can be held in 2024", Darmanin told local media.
This effectively materialises a deadline for talks with local parties.
If no inclusive "all players" draft amendment is achieved by then, then the French State will go ahead, Darmanin stressed.
"That's why I am ready to come back next week in yet another attempt to reach the most inclusive agreement, with UC (...) The ball is in their court", he said.
During this weekend talks, Darmanin also revealed he had suggested that New Caledonia's President should be elected directly in a universal suffrage, but he said this was rejected.
He also said he had suggested that the name of "Congress" of New Caledonia should be simply changed to "Parliament" and that in future, a more significant role could be devoted to the existing Customary Senate (the equivalent of a Great Council of Chiefs), which could be given an upgraded role comparable to that of a fully-fledged Senate..
Regarding future referendums, "There won't be any more dateline for future referendums. And there won't be any more 'yes/no' question to independence. What we are suggesting is a process that would allow the advent of a 'referendum of project'. The way it is formulated at this stage, which is still amendable, is that the Congress could decide to come up with a project that could then be endorsed by two thirds of the members and then if it is endorsed by the Congress, it can be put to the vote to the population in a referendum. So the idea is that it would be a consensual and no more confrontational approach between pro-independence and anti-independence parties that would allow to bring about a new project, including, but not only, on the notion of independence", the minister explained, adding he was "placing a bet on intelligence".
Nouméa march: 'We will never give up on our fathers' dreams'
On Friday, in the streets of Nouméa, a crowd of close to one thousand pro-independence protesters marched to "welcome" Darmanin and Lemaire, brandishing Kanaky flags and banners reading "We will never give up on our fathers' dreams".
The mobilisation was organised mainly by USTKE, once the union arm of the FLNKS, with a noticeable participation by UC.
But more moderate FLNKS components such as PALIKA and UPM parties had called on their members to refrain from taking part in activities that could disrupt talks in progress.
French finance minister ready to help New Caledonia's nickel
As for New Caledonia's nickel industry, a highly political topic which is undergoing yet another crisis, Lemaire has visited all three nickel plants in New Caledonia: the North (Koniambo), the South (Prony) and Nouméa (Société le Nickel).
He said solutions had to be identified and implemented in "a matter of weeks, not months".
"The status quo is no longer possible", he stressed, adding that solutions will have to identify new markets (including in Europe) and possible changes of production processes for New Caledonia's nickel.
In August this year, a French audit had sounded the alarm bell for all three of New Caledonia's nickel mining plants.
One of those, Koniambo, is currently under threat from its major financier, Glencore. The Swiss-British giant said it would stop financing the New Caledonian plant by February 2024 unless a "new financial solution" was found.
Lemaire said the situation was currently "critical".
"France is ready to commit itself to taking part financially in future reforms, provided they are economically profitable", he said.
The gloomy situation in New Caledonia, where its nickel is deemed uncompetitive due to high production costs and relevance of the final product, comes in contrast with the current worldwide boom in demand for nickel, mainly because of the ever-risinig production of electric cars (nickel is a key component of the batteries).
"The European Investment Bank and European car manufacturers could be ready to invest in those projects (...) I'm even ready to convince them that it's worth investing in New Caledonia nickel plants and ensure that the (French) State brings financial guarantees (to future financial operations). But this can only happen within the framework of a profitable business model", he said.
"We are only at the beginning of the electric vehicles revolution. It will accelerate and then a market diversification with, on one hand, the Asian markets and on the other hand new European markets, looks to me like a very good strategy", he predicted.