24 May 2024

French President Emmanuel Macron ends day of political talks with pro-France, pro-independence parties

7:25 am on 24 May 2024
French President Macron visit Nouméa’s central police station on Thursday 23 May 2024 – Photo supplied-pool

French President Macron visit Nouméa’s central police station on Thursday. Photo: Supplied

Analysis - French President Emmanuel Macron has ended a meeting-packed whirlwind day in New Caledonia with back-to-back sessions including opposing leaders of the French Pacific territory.

Macron left New Caledonia on Friday morning local time, leaving some members of his entourage to further attend to the still-inflamed situation.

After landing there on Thursday morning as part of an emergency visit to address the current crisis, the president's day was busy.

Macron held meeting after meeting first with economic stakeholders, as New Caledonia's economy faced the bleakest situation in its history, after 11 days of rioting, burning and looting.

He also held meetings with elected members of the local assembly, as well as the mayors.

Later in the day, Macron met police and gendarmes personnel and expressed his gratitude and condolences for the loss of two gendarmes killed during the riots.

He confirmed that some 3000 security force personnel were stationed in New Caledonia and would stay "as long as it takes" to fully restore law and order.

By the end of Thursday, Macron managed to listen to opposing views from the antagonistic camps, with sometimes divisions seen even within each of the blocks.

Urgent economic measures

Paris would set up a special "solidarity fund" to assist economic recovery, in the face of "colossal" damage caused by more than a week of burning and looting of businesses - about 400 destroyed for an estimated cost bordering €1 billion (NZ$1.7b).

This would include measures such as emergency assistance to pay salaries, to delay payments and debts, to get insurers to move quickly and for banks to grant zero-interest loans for reconstruction.

Socio-economic roots to disorder

Macron also met groups of young New Caledonians who expressed distress at the lack of perspective they faced regarding their future.

Recognising that the violent unrest and rioting were still ongoing in Nouméa, its outskirts and other parts of New Caledonia, Macron labelled them "multifactor" and "in part, political".

"They rely on delinquents who have sometimes overwhelmed their order-givers. Then there is this opportunistic delinquency that has aggregated. This has crystallised a political disagreement and, let's face it, this question of the electoral roll that was taken separately from everything else."

As one of the major causes of New Caledonia's current situation, the French president singled out social inequalities that "have continued to increase ... They are in part fuelling the uninhibited racism that has re-emerged over the past eleven days".

Macron said those politicians, who had recently radicalised their talks and actions, bore an "immense" responsibility.

Distressed youths

"The question now is to restore confidence between all stakeholders, political forces, economic forces ... and regain confidence in the future.

"We are not starting from a blank page. Our foundations are those on which the Nouméa and Matignon Accords [1988 and 1998] have been built.

"But one has to admit that still, today, vision for a common destiny ... and the re-balancing has not achieved its goal of reducing economic and social inequalities. On the contrary, they have increased," Macron said.

"Today, I have met youths of all walks of life and what struck me was that they felt discouraged, afraid, sometimes angry and that they need a vision for the future," Macron told media.

"Really, it's now the responsibility of all those in charge to build this path."

CCAT's "public enemy number one" makes surprise appearance

On the sensitive political chapter, Macron spent a significant part of his visit to try and bring together political parties for talks.

He managed only in so far as he did meet with pro-independence leaders, even accepting that the controversial CCAT (a so-called "field action coordination committee" set up late in 2023 by Union Calédonienne, one of the main components of the pro-independence front), be allowed to attend the meeting.

CCAT leader Christian Tein, despite being under home arrest, and regarded by some as "public enemy number one", was brought to attend, much to the surprise of observers.

Behind closed doors, at the French High Commission in downtown Nouméa, Macron also met pro-France (loyalist) leaders, but because of their divisions, he had to organise two meetings: one with Le Rassemblement and Les Loyalistes, and another one for Calédonie Ensemble.

Macron [right] with New Caledonia’s President Louis Mapou [left] and Congress President Roch Wamytan [centre]

New Caledonia’s President Louis Mapou [left] and Congress President Roch Wamytan [centre] with Emmanuel Macron. Photo: supplied

But a meeting of all parties together remained elusive and did not take place.

Well into the evening, Macron held a press conference to announce the contents of his exchanges with a wide range of political, but also economic and civil society stakeholders.

Controversial amendment on electoral roll delayed, but not withdrawn

Elaborating on the outcomes of the talks he had with political leaders, Macron stressed that he had "made a very clear commitment to ensure that the controversial reform is not rushed by force and that in view of the current context, we give ourselves a few weeks so as to allow peace to return, dialogue to resume, in view of a comprehensive agreement".

No going back on the third referendum

"I told them the state will be in its role of impartiality," Macron said, but added that on the third self-determination referendum (held in December 2021 and boycotted by the pro-independence camp): "I will not go back on this."

On the basis of the third referendum which was part of three consultations - held in 1998, 2020 and 2021 and that all resulted in a majority of rejection of independence for New Caledonia - Macron has consistently considered, since, that New Caledonia has chosen to remain French.

But under the 1998 (now almost expired) Nouméa Accord, after those three referenda have been held and if they have all produced a majority of rejections of independence, local political actors have to meet to consider "the situation thus created".

The Accord's terms were, this way, encouraging talks that would produce the much-referred to "local agreement" which would be the embryo of the successor to the 1998 Accord.

"The political dialogue must resume immediately. I have decided to install a mediating and working mission and in one month, an update will be made," Macron said, referring to a "comprehensive agreement" from all local parties regarding the future of New Caledonia.

Macron reiterated he wished for such a deal to be reached, because if this was the case, it would become part of the French Constitution and automatically replace the controversial constitutional amendment focusing on New Caledonia's electoral conditions changes.

For the local agreement to emerge, Macron also appointed a team of negotiators tasked to assist.

Renewed call for local, comprehensive agreement

"The objective is to reach this comprehensive agreement and that it should cover at least the question of the electoral roll, but also the organisation of power ... citizenship, the self-determination vote issue, a new social pact and the way of dealing with inequalities," he told reporters.

Other short- to long-term pressing economic issues such as diversification of the nickel industry, which is undergoing its worst crisis due to the collapse of world nickel prices (-45 percent of the past 12 months), should also be the subject of political talks and be included in the new deal, which is supposed to become a successor to the 1998 Nouméa Accord for New Caledonia.

"My wish is also that this [local] agreement should be endorsed to the vote of New Caledonians."

In the controversial text that still needs to be ratified by the French Parliament's Congress (the National Assembly and the Senate, in a joint sitting with a required majority of two-thirds), and that is perceived as one of the main causes of the riots currently hitting New Caledonia, there are two sections: one is effectively "unfreezing" New Caledonia's eligibility conditions for provincial local elections, to allow everyone residing there for an uninterrupted 10 years to cast their vote.

Section two, however, stipulates that if a comprehensive and wider agreement is produced by all politicians, then the whole amendment is deemed null and void, and that the new locally-produced text is translated into law and replaces it.

The inclusive agreement has been sought by the French government for the past three years but to date, local parties have not been able to reach such a consensus.

Talks have been held, sometimes between pro-independent and "loyalist" (pro-France) parties, but never has it been possible to bring everyone to the same table at the same time, mainly because of internal divisions within each camp.

But while evoking New Caledonia's future political prospects, Macron stressed the immediate need was for all political stakeholders to "explicitly call for all roadblocks to be lifted in the coming hours".

"As soon as those withdrawals are effective and observed, then the state of emergency will be lifted too," he said.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs