9 May 2024

New Caledonia’s French constitutional amendment: green light in Paris, red light in Nouméa

4:57 pm on 9 May 2024
Another pro-independence protest in the streets of Nouméa on 8 May 2024.

Another pro-independence protest in the streets of Nouméa on 8 May 2024. Photo: NC la 1ère

Analysis - While the French National Assembly in Paris was on Tuesday giving one more green light to French government-tabled constitutional changes for New Caledonia, more marches took place to protest against the move, which pro-independence parties say will significantly affect their representation.

On Tuesday, the French National Assembly (Lower House) law committee was debating the value of the proposed constitutional amendment to alter the rules of eligibility to vote at local provincial elections.

This would mainly change the restrictions, from a "frozen" electoral roll (only those who have resided in New Caledonia before 1998 can vote) to a "sliding" roll, still restricted, but allowing people who had resided in New Caledonia for a minimum of ten uninterrupted years to vote.

It is estimated the change would bring in some 25,000 new voters at New Caledonia's local elections for the three provincial assemblies and for the local Congress.

After the National Assembly's Law Commission, the Constitutional Amendment Bill should be debated again next week, on 13 May, with a vote now scheduled on 14 May.

If it passes the National Assembly's vote, as it did in the French Senate on April 2, with amendments, then both Houses of the French Parliament should be called for a special "Congress" gathering, sometime at the end of June or in early July, to vote on the Constitutional Amendment, with a required majority of three-fifths.

Green light

The French government's minister for Home Affairs and Overseas, Gérald Darmanin, who has travelled to New Caledonia seven times over the past two years, has repeatedly advocated for a need for these restrictions, implemented as part of the 1998 Nouméa Accord, to be "unfrozen"; because they were not devised to last forever, and there is now a need to re-introduce "a minimum of democracy" in the French Pacific entity.

Darmanin's interpretation of the more recent developments of the Nouméa Accord, which also prescribed that three referendums on self-determination should take place, was that the three consultations held in 2018, 2020 and 2021 resulted in three refusals of independence for New Caledonia; and that, therefore, New Caledonia's majority wished it to remain French.

In this scenario, which was foreseen in the 1998 Accord, the following step was that all of New Caledonia's political parties should then meet and come up with what should be the successor agreement to the Nouméa Accord.

The desired agreement would however have to be "inclusive" and bipartisan, and be the result of a real consensus.

Over the past two years, attempts to bring everyone to the same table have been made, but have not yet produced any comprehensive agreement.

Red light

Back in Nouméa, some 19,000 Kilometres away from Paris, the series of well-planned actions and demonstrations continued to unroll, mainly organised by a CCAT "field action coordination cell", an organisation recently revived by one of the main components of the pro-independence FLNKS umbrella, the Union Calédonienne (UC).

On Wednesday, the focus was once again to protest against the Constitutional Bill debates in Paris, at the National Assembly.

The protest, under heavy police security, gathered an estimated participation of 9,000, according to police, but up to 30,000 according to the organisers.

This was part of a CCAT-staged operation dubbed "Ten Days for Kanaky".

Those ten days began with other gatherings in remembrance of pro-independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, who initiated New Caledonia's decolonisation process, and struck a historic agreement in 1988 with pro-France leader Jacques Lafleur and then French Prime Minister Michel Rocard.

Hundreds have commemorated of the 35th anniversary of the assassination of pro-independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou at his grave on 4 May 2024, in the village of Hienghène.

Hundreds have commemorated of the 35th anniversary of the assassination of pro-independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou at his grave on 4 May 2024, in the village of Hienghène. Photo: Nouvelle-Calédonie la 1ère

Tjibaou and close associate Yeiwéné Yeiwéné were both assassinated on May 4, 1989, by a hard-liner within New Caledonia's pro-independence movement, Djubelly Wéa.

Wéa was also shot dead by bodyguards moments later.

The CCAT also plans to stage demonstrations in front of French gendarmerie stations, in direct reference to the actions that took place during the most violent period of the 1980s, especially the assault from French forces on the Ouvéa grotto (Loyalty islands group) following a hostage crisis turned bloodbath in April 1989.

Alarm bells sounded

Since last week, alarm bells have been sounded in Paris, especially during the National Assembly's Law Committee's preliminary hearings.

Among those interviewed to express their views were three former Prime Ministers who have expressed serious doubts regarding the way the present French government was dealing with New Caledonia.

During three separate interviews, former PMs Jean-Marc Ayrault (Socialist [2012-2014]), Manuel Valls (Socialist [2014-2016]) and Edouard Philippe (Centre-right [2017-2020]) all suggested that the French government's approach should be seriously reviewed.

They all recalled that during their respective tenures, New Caledonia's affairs and focal points had always been under the direct responsibility of the French PM's office.

The last French PM to have this privilege was Edouard Philippe, who left office in 2020.

Restore 'special link'

From that point, New Caledonia's issues were discretely transferred to then-French Overseas minister Sébastien Lecornu, and later to Darmanin (with the Home Affairs portfolio).

The "special" link between Nouméa and the French PM's office was until then an unwritten rule, consistently respected since the Matignon Accord (1988) sealed the end of a quasi civil war during the second half of the 1980s.

The Matignon Accord was brokered by then-Socialist PM Michel Rocard, who made the deal happen between pro-France leader Jacques Lafleur and pro-independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou.

Those three former PMs, during their respective auditions, also pleaded for a high-level "dialogue mission" to travel to New Caledonia, in order to restore a local political dialogue which would help produce a local, comprehensive agreement on New Caledonia's political future.

After a few attempts over the last two years, those talks have now stalled, amidst increasing tensions and radicalisation from all sides of the political spectrum.

Pro-independence parties in New Caledonia have also expressed the wish to see such a mission take place as soon as possible.

While demanding that the current Constitutional Amendment project be withdrawn altogether, they also mention that the mission may include key political figures such as the Senate President, Gérard Larcher, and National Assembly President, Yaël Braun-Pivet.

During those auditions last week, Ayrault also revealed he has recently warned France's current PM, Gabriel Attal, of the necessity for him to take risks of re-emerging violence in New Caledonia "very seriously" - in the form of "loyalist (pro-France) militia ready to be set-up" and "Kanak action committees on the verge of launching hard-line actions", French daily, Le Monde said at the weekend.

Charles Washetine, spokesperson for Kanak Liberation Party (PALIKA, a moderate component of FLNKS) told public broadcaster Nouvelle-Calédonie la 1ère at the weekend: "We have to give ourselves the means to avoid that all we see on social networks ends up becoming reality, which would complicate even more (New Caledonia's) situation."

Last week also, a delegation of French MPs - Davy Rimane, Philippe Gosselin, Tematai Le Gayic and Guillaume Vuilletet, returning from a fact-finding mission in New Caledonia in March, expressed concerns at the situation there and the risk of outbreaks.

In their report presented to the National Assembly, a whole chapter is dedicated to the "preoccupying context", including the "increasing number of demonstrations" but also a "notoriously armed population".

'Notoriously armed population'

They are quoting local statistics as saying the current official number of legally licensed firearms is 64,000, usually high-calibre weapons registered for hunting, sports and leisure activities.

"If we add to those the illegally-detained weapons, the official estimate is about 100,000 weapons in circulation," the MPs wrote. "A very important figure with regards to the territory's population of 268,500.

"This represents one firearm per four New Caledonians.

"But since one person owns an average of two firearms, this means that one New Caledonian in eight is in possession of a firearm at home."

They also said in the face of a "sensitive situation", the possibility of unrest is "real".

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