28 Feb 2024

Political matters dominate French minister Gérald Darmanin's visit in New Caledonia

8:45 pm on 28 February 2024
French Home Affairs and Overseas minister Gérald Darmanin in Nouméa interview 22 February 2024.

French Home Affairs and Overseas minister Gérald Darmanin in Nouméa inteview 22 February 2024. Photo: Screenshot / Caledonia TV

French Home Affairs and Overseas minister Gérald Darmanin has ended his two-day visit to New Caledonia saying his door remained open, but that a controversial Constitutional review scheduled in the next few months was still on track.

This week, Darmanin was flanked by his newly-appointed delegate minister for Overseas Marie Guévenoux as well as Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti.

During what is his sixth visit to New Caledonia over the past year, sensitive political issues were not supposed to be high on the agenda.

However, Constitutional matters directly regarding New Caledonia, as well as the critical situation in the nickel industry have somehow stolen the show.

Darmanin initiated a Constitutional review process for New Caledonia which includes the sensitive issue of revising the French Pacific entity's list of eligible voters.

The change would mainly imply, still within certain limits, that any French citizen who has uninterruptedly resided in New Caledonia for the past ten years would be allowed to vote in local elections.

"With the minimum ten year period, it seems perfectly reasonable and those who are against this are in fact against democracy", Darmanin told television reporters on Thursday.

The current restrictions, introduced by the autonomy Nouméa Accord, are "freezing" the list of eligible voters to only those French citizens who have been residing there before 1998.

The Constitutional amendment is about to begin its legislative journey, the first hurdle being a debate in the French Senate on 27 March.

The amendment text is also supposed to undergo debates in the lower House, the French National Assembly on 13 May.

Once these two steps are completed, a special meeting of the French Congress (which is a gathering of both Houses of Parliament is required to pass, or not, the text at a majority of three fifths.

Darmanin also pointed out that if, before 1 July, inclusive talks between all local parties produced a consensual bipartisan agreement regarding New Caledonia's political future, then the Constitutional amendment process would stop and the locally-produced text would be taken into account as a priority.

"I've always said that if there was a local agreement, even if we were just a few meters away from concluding such an agreement, we would look at the possibility of postponing or even stopping the Constitutional process to include the new text", he stressed.

"But for now, all I can see is people who do not turn up at meetings and who do not take their responsibilities", he deplored.

Most local political parties have, over the past few months, taken part in those political discussions that are taking shape in various formats.

But there are divisions within the two main blocks: in the pro-France camp, one component, Calédonie Ensemble, has taken the initiative to organise bipartisan sessions, but other pro-French parties (Les Loyalistes, Rassemblement) are refusing to attend those talk formats.

In the pro-independence camp (gathered under the umbrella of the FLNKS), one of the main components, the PALIKA (Kanak Liberation Party) is attending most discussions, but the Union Calédonienne (UC), although taking part in some talks, is still refusing to attend an inclusive version of the debates.

Teargas during clashes between French police and Union Calédonienne militants in central Nouméa 21 February 2024.

Teargas during clashes between French police and Union Calédonienne militants in central Nouméa 21 February 2024. Photo: NC la 1ère

Protest triggers condemnations

In opposition to the sensitive electoral roll issue, Union Calédonienne, through a recently-revived "field action group" (locally known as the CCAT), was once again this week voicing its opposition in downtown Nouméa. The protest, which had gathered between 500 and two thousand militants, turned violent and led to clashes with security forces and five policemen being injured at various degrees.

This prompted Rassemblement and Les Loyalistes, in a joint release, to announce formal court proceedings calling for CCAT (which they say are responsible for "unacceptable calls for violence") to be dissolved.

Another pro-France moderate party, Calédonie Ensemble, warned against the "dangerous slope of violence" New Caledonia was now engaged in.

French High Commissioner Louis Lefranc also condemned "in the strongest terms" CCAT's actions and stressed that even though "the right to demonstrate is guaranteed in our Constitution, it can only be exerted within the respect of public order".

CCAT later maintained their initial objective was to lead a "peaceful" march and expressed "regret" that "those clashes entailed injuries on both sides".

PALIKA, on its part, had called for its militants not to take part in the march, but did hold a meeting with Darmanin during his visit.

"He told us that if, for instance, in May, we were all on the verge of reaching even the beginning of an agreement, then all political parties can make a joint release and seed it to him", PALIKA spokesman Jean-Pierre Djaïwé explained.

He also clarified the (CCAT) actions were initiated by Union Calédonienne.

"The FLNKS is a front of autonomous parties...when one of those parties decides to take such actions, it is its sole responsibility", he clarified with local media.

"We are in favour of a local and comprehensive political agreement. And for that, all parties, whether for or against independence, need to negotiate. And then, at one stage, we need to be able to make compromises", Djaïwe stressed.

"There is a will from everyone to find an agreement, no question about that, but at one stage, we all need to sit around the table together...and to date, there are still political groups who don't want to see other groups sitting at the same table", he deplored.

Koniambo nickel operation.

Koniambo nickel operation. Photo: Image courtesy of Glencore.

Nickel's critical situation

Asked about the other acutely sensitive issue of the moment, that is New Caledonia's nickel industry's critical situation, with Northern plant Koniambo's main stakeholder Glencore now withdrawing from the venture and putting the whole site in sleep mode, Darmanin reacted saying this was "probably an opportunity to place the nickel industry in a dynamic perspective and stop implementing band-aid solutions like it's been done for years".

The French government (including its finance minister Bruno Lemoore, who visited in November 2023) is trying to get all of New Caledonia's nickel stakeholders (three mining sites, all in dire financial difficulties) to sign what it calls a "nickel pact" to implement stringent reforms.

The aim was to make New Caledonia's nickel more competitive on the global market, in the face of an increasing production of low-cost nickel from China and Indonesia.

Australia and "strategic protection"

Darmanin left on Friday for Australia, here he is scheduled to meet cabinet ministers.

The focus, he said, was in relation to France's "Indo-Pacific" strategy.

"We are working very well with our Australian friends who are also watching New Caledonia's developments very closely. We want to work with them on matters of strategic protection in relation to great powers such as China, which is sometimes behaving in a predatory manner towards our territories".

€500m prison project

During his visit with Darmanin this week, French justice minister Eric Dupond-Moretti also confirmed the construction of a new jail house in the suburbs of the capital Nouméa, at an estimated cost of over 500 million Euros.

The new site, which is to replace the ageing and overcrowded "Camp-Est" Nouméa prison, is scheduled to enter into construction in 2028 to be completed by 2032.

Meanwhile, urgent renovations are also in the pipeline for Camp-Est in order to improve living conditions that have been denounced and condemned several times by human rights organisations.

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