15 Apr 2024

New Caledonia: Flags and emotions high over proposed changes

7:39 pm on 15 April 2024
Tens of thousands of pro-independence supporters with Kanaky flags gathered on Nouméa's Coconut Square on Saturday 13 April 2024.

Tens of thousands of pro-independence supporters with Kanaky flags gathered on Nouméa's Coconut Square on Saturday 13 April 2024. Photo: NC la 1ère

New Caledonia's capital was on Saturday flooded by two simultaneous waves of French and Kanaky flags as part of two demonstrations in downtown Nouméa, only two streets away from each other and under heavy security surveillance.

The French High Commission in Nouméa provided an official count of the magnitude of the demonstrations.

It said the number of participants to those two marches was about 40,000 (15 percent of New Caledonia's 270,000-strong population).

The total was about equally divided between pro-France and pro-independence marchers.

This was largely described as the largest crowd since the quasi-civil war that erupted there in the 1980s.

Organisers of the marches, on their side, claim as many as 58,000 (pro-independence) and 35,000 (pro-France), respectively.

One of the marches was organised by a pro-independence field action coordination committee (CCAT) close to Union Calédonienne (UC), one of the components of the pro-independence FLNKS umbrella.

The other was called by two pro-France parties, the Rassemblement and Les Loyalistes, who urged their supporters to make their voices heard.

An estimated 20,000 wave of anti-independence supporters with French flags gathered on Nouméa's Baie de la Moselle on Saturday 13 April 2024.

An estimated 20,000 wave of anti-independence supporters with French flags gathered on Nouméa's Baie de la Moselle on Saturday 13 April 2024. Photo: RRB

Controversial constitutional amendment

Both marches were directly related to a French proposed constitutional amendment which aims at changing the rules of voters eligibility for New Caledonia and to allow citizens who have been residing the for at least ten uninterrupted years to cast their votes at local elections (for the three provincial assemblies and for the local Congress).

It is estimated the new system would open the door to about 25,000 more voters.

Until now, and since 1998 as prescribed by the 1998 Nouméa Accord, New Caledonia's electoral roll for local elections was more restricted as it only allowed citizens born or who had resided there before 1998 to vote at those local elections.

The controversial text was endorsed, with amendments, by the French Senate (Upper House) on 2 April.

As part of its legislative process, it is scheduled to be debated in the Lower House (National Assembly) on 13 May and then should again be put to the vote at the French Congress (a special gathering of both Upper and Lower Houses) sometime in June, with a required majority of three fifths.

The constitutional amendment, however, is designed to be aborted if, at any time, New Caledonia's leaders can produce an agreement on the French entity's political future that would result from inclusive, bipartisan talks.

But over the past months, those talks have stalled, even though French Home Affairs and Overseas Minister Gérald Darmanin (who initiated the Constitutional process) travelled to New Caledonia half a dozen times over the past 12 months.

The current legislative process also caused the postponement of New Caledonia's provincial elections from May to mid-December "at the latest".

'Paris, hear our voice!'

In a tit-for-tat communications war, organisers on both sides also intended to send a strong message to sway Paris MPs from all sides of the political spectrum ahead of their debates.

New Caledonia's pro-France parties were marching on Saturday in support of the constitutional amendment project, brandishing French tricolour flags, singing the French anthem "La Marseillaise" and claiming "one man, one vote" on their banners.

Other banners read "This is our home!", "No freedom without democracy!", "Unfreeze is democracy" or "proud to be Caledonians, proud to be French".

Les Loyalistes pro-France party leader Sonia Backès, in a brief speech, scanted "Paris, hear our voice".

"It's probably the largest demonstration that ever took place in New Caledonia...this gives us strength to pursue in our efforts to implement this electoral roll unfreezing. And the message I want to send to FLNKS is 'Don't be afraid of us. We want to work with you, we want to build with you, but please stop the threats and the insults, it doesn't help", Nicolas Metzdorf, New Caledonia's representative MP at the National Assembly, told local media.

'Peace is at threat' - Wamytan

The pro-independence march, on its side, was waving Kanaky flags in opposition to the Constitutional amendment, saying this could make indigenous Kanaks a minority on their own land.

They are denouncing the whole process as being "forced" upon them by France and are asking for the constitutional amendment to be scrapped altogether and that, instead, a French high-level "dialog mission" be sent to New Caledonia. It is suggested that speakers of both the National Assembly and the Senate should lead the mission.

"Peace is at threat because the (French) State is no longer impartial. It has touched a taboo and we must resist. Unfreezing this electoral roll is leading us to death", pro-independence charismatic leader and local Congress Chairman Roch Wamytan told the crowd, referring to the future of the indigenous Kanak people.

Wamytan is a prominent member of Union Calédonienne, which is one of the components of the multi-party pro-independence umbrella FLNKS.

Other members of the FLNKS group, PALIKA (Kanak Liberation Party) and UPM (Melanesian Progressist Union) parties have often expressed reservations about the UC-led confrontational approach and have consistently taken part in talks with Darmanin and other local parties.

Similarly, on the pro-French side, Calédonie Ensemble (which did not associate itself with Saturday's march) leader Philippe Gomès said they were concerned with the current confrontational and escalating atmosphere.

"Where is this going to lead us? Nowhere", he told a press conference on Friday.

Gomès said those marches were de facto an admission that talks have failed.

He also called on Paris to send a dialog mission to mediate between New Caledonia's parties.

No confrontation, no incident under heavy security

Security reinforcements had been sent especially from Paris to ensure that the two crowds which both took place on Saturday morning, did not come into contact at any stage.

No incident was reported and the two marches took place peacefully.

Darmanin at UN decolonisation committee

Meanwhile, on Friday, French minister Darmanin was to appear before the United Nations' Special Decolonisation Committee as part of the regular monitoring of New Caledonia's situation.

Before heading to New York UN headquarters, his entourage indicated that he wanted to underline France's commitment for "respect of international Law in New Caledonia" where a "legislative and constitutional process is currently underway to organise local elections under a new system".

Darmanin maintains that New Caledonia's electoral roll present restrictions, which were temporarily put in place as part of implementation of the 1998 Nouméa Accord, were no longer tenable under France's democracy; and that proposed changes, still restrictive, were an attempt to restore "a minimum of democracy" in the French Pacific archipelago.

The currently stalled political talks are an attempt to reach a new agreement regarding New Caledonia's political future and status vis-à-vis France to replace the Nouméa Accord.