21 May 2024

Political solution for New Caledonia: talk of dialogue mission

8:04 am on 21 May 2024
Former French Socialist prime minister Michel Rocard, hailed a "visionary statesman", died on July 2, 2016 aged 85 his son Francis told AFP.

This file photo taken on September 10, 2015 shows former French prime minister Michel Rocard attending the event "La France s'engage pour le climat, En avant la COP21' (France is committed to climate, Go COP21), ahead the World Climate Summit - COP21 which will be hosted in Paris from November 30 to December 11, 2015. Former French Socialist prime minister Michel Rocard, hailed a "visionary statesman", died on July 2, 2016 aged 85 his son Francis told AFP. Photo: PATRICK KOVARIK / AFP


Thirty-six years ago, as New Caledonia was in the midst of a quasi civil war, France's newly-appointed socialist prime minister Michel Rocard was tasked to set up a "dialogue mission" to put a lasting end to civil unrest, which was also at the time related to the independence issue.

The mission's prime objective was to restore dialogue with local politicians, both pro-France (Loyalists) and pro-independence (rallied under the umbrella of the newly-created FLNKS [Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front]).

In May 1988, the unrest reached its peak with a heavy-handed security response by French elite squads, who launched an attack on the Ouvéa grotto, where French gendarmes had been taken hostage by a group of pro-independence militants.

Nineteen Kanaks and 2 gendarmes were killed as a result.

Both communities were left in a state of profound shock.

But a political response remained necessary.


Michel Rocard

Le problème c'était comment faire pour que les gens se parlent?

La République française avait deux fois dans l'histoire trahi sa parole donnée par écrit au peuple kanak.

L'état n'était plus crédible.

Personne ne se parlait, nous étions dans une situation de refus de la communauté Kanak de parler avec l'État français.

Et du côté caldoche, ça n'allait pas beaucoup mieux.

Michel Rocard

"The problem was how do we get people to talk to each other?

The French Republic had twice in history betrayed its word given in writing to the Kanak people.

The (French) State was no longer credible.

No one spoke to each other, we were in a situation where the Kanak community refused to speak with the French State.

And on the Caldoche (pro-France) side, things weren't much better."

Christian Blanc

J'indique au premier ministre qu'il faut partir d'idées simples.

La première idée fondamentale, c'est que la Nouvelle-Calédonie est à 20.000 km de Paris.

Aux antipodes.

Et que ce n'est pas à Paris que nous pourrons inventer des solutions.

La deuxième, c'est que, qu'on le veuille ou non, la situation en Nouvelle-Calédonie est une situation coloniale.

Et qu'il serait important qu'enfin, la France sache décoloniser au sein de la République.

Nous avons un échange et naît alors l'idée d'une mission.

Christian Blanc

"I tell the Prime Minister that we must start with simple ideas.

The first fundamental idea is that New Caledonia is 20,000 km away from Paris.

On the other side of the globe.

And that it is not in Paris that we will be able to invent solutions.

The second is that, whether we like it or not, the situation in New Caledonia is a colonial situation.

And that it would be important that France finally knows how to decolonize within the Republic.

We have an exchange and then emerges the idea of a mission."

The dialogue mission was sent a few days later.

Talks that ensued finally resulted in the signing of the Matignon-Oudinot Accords, by Rocard (on behalf of France), FLNKS leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou and RPCR (pro-France) leader Jacques Lafleur.

Tjibaou was shot dead one year later, by a hard-line member of the pro-independence movement.

Rocard died in 2016.

But the Accords of 1988 did not derail and were followed by another agreement, the Nouméa Accord, signed in 1998.

The new accord was focused on "re-balancing" the wealth disparities between the Northern and Loyalty Islands provinces (mostly populated by indigenous Kanaks) and the more affluent Southern province, where the capital Nouméa is located.

There was also a strong emphasis on the nickel industry, when, months before the signing of the Nouméa Accord, the so-called "Bercy Accord" enacted the transfer of the nickel-rich Koniambo massif to New Caledonia's pro-independence Northern province.

Under the 1998 document, the preamble underlined the Kanak people as the "first population", in existence before the 1853 "taking of possession" by France.

Three provinces (North, South, Loyalty Islands) were created, each one having its own provincial assembly, and at the territorial level, the Congress is made up of members of these three provinces, proportionally.

The local government is also designed to be "collegial", which means it is supposed to be a reflection of parties' representation in the provincial assemblies.

36 years later

Thirty-six years later, deadly riots, shooting, burning and looting have once again broken out in the French Pacific territory.

In the face of what has often been described as "guerrilla" and "urban warfare" scenes by apparently well-trained and organised youths groups, once again, the priority was to restore law and order.

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal hosts a parliamentary liaison committee on the situation in New Caledonia. Photo: Supplied/Le Monde

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, centre, hosts a parliamentary liaison committee on the situation in New Caledonia. Photo: Le Monde

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal - after a 12-day presidential state of emergency was declared last week - is chairing meetings of an "inter-ministerial crisis cell", also involving Home Affairs and Overseas Minister Gérald Darmanin, his deputy Marie Guévenoux, Army Minister Sébastien Lecornu and Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti.

At the weekend, French authorities mounted a massive law enforcement operation involving some 600 security personnel to regain control of the main roads in and around the capital Nouméa, especially the highway that links the capital to its international airport.

On Monday, French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc told the media the so-called "cleanup" operation was still underway to restore a manner of normal traffic.

And within Nouméa, some neighbourhoods were still at the hands of armed groups, despite operations of "harassment" being carried out by French security forces (now an estimated 2,800).

Damage to property and businesses has now been at 400 million Euros (twice as much as earlier estimated).

Over a hundred containers sitting at Nouméa wharf were also finally unloaded on Sunday, and attempts were made to deliver those essential goods to those retail outlets that have not yet been set on fire.

A 'dialogue mission' for New Caledonia

Attal also hosted a parliamentary "liaison committee" meeting on the situation in New Caledonia on Friday. The meeting involved parliamentary representatives of New Caledonia and parliamentary groups specialising in the French Pacific archipelago.

It emerged that this concept of an "impartial" and "bipartisan" dialogue mission was now very likely to be backed by all sides of the political spectrum.

The concept is not only supported by many politicians back in mainland France (majority and opposition alike), but has also been called for weeks by New Caledonia's pro-independence leaders.

Who could be part of this delegation?

This high-level dialogue mission could involve members of both Houses of French parliament, the Senate (upper) and the national Assembly (lower).

The names of Senate President Gérard Larcher and National Assembly President Yaël Braun-Pivet have been mentioned in the past few days.

Also mentioned were the names of former prime ministers such as Lionel Jospin (who signed the Nouméa Accord in 1998 on behalf of France); or Edouard Philippe, who has always said he had grown a strong bond with New Caledonia when he was in office (until 2020).

Since the beginning of the unrest, there have been calls for New Caledonia's affairs to be transferred back to the prime minister's office, as had been an unwritten rule since peace was restored back in the 1980s through negotiations with then-prime minister Michel Rocard.

Experts said this "special bond" between the French PM's office and New Caledonia was somehow broken in 2020, after French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was replaced by Jean Castex, and the overseas portfolio was transferred to Sébastien Lecornu, who is now France's minister of armed forces.

Several high-level experts and officials said that the spirit of the Matignon Accords - an agreement between loyalists and separatists which was signed in 1988 - had been lost along the way. The breach of that consensus had led to a loss of trust and a growing defiance between New Caledonian pro-independence players and the French State.

Burnt vehicles are seen on a road leading to the capital in Noumea.

Burnt vehicles are seen on a road leading to the capital in Noumea. Photo: AFP / Theo Rouby

What sparked the riots

The riots were sparked by a proposed constitutional amendment which would allow more French residents of New Caledonia to vote - a move that pro-independence protesters say would weaken the indigenous Kanak vote.

The controversial constitutional amendment was endorsed by the French Senate on 2 April and the National Assembly on 14 May.

However, in order to take effect, this Constitutional Amendment still needs to be ratified by the Congress, a joint sitting of both upper and lower houses of the French parliament.

President Emmanuel Macron intended to convene this joint sitting before the end of June to endorse the amendment.

Now, this was unlikely to take place, at least within this timeframe, Braun-Pivet and Larcher told French media on Friday.

Attal, who now seems to have been handed over the sensitive issue, on the political implications, was also tasked by Macron to set a date for talks to be held in Paris with New Caledonian politicians for inclusive talks on the territory's political future.

But several players have refused, saying the time was not appropriate as yet.

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