28 May 2024

Emmanuel Macron’s gamble on New Caledonia’s crisis

12:59 pm on 28 May 2024
Macron [right] with New Caledonia’s President Louis Mapou [left] and Congress President Roch Wamytan [centre] – Photo supplied pool

Macron [right] with New Caledonia’s President Louis Mapou [left] and Congress President Roch Wamytan [centre] – Photo supplied pool Photo: Supplied

In-depth - In the early hours of Friday 24 May, just before embarking his plane back to Paris after a few hours in New Caledonia, where he met all of the political parties, French President Emmanuel Macron left behind parts of his delegation, his delegate minister for Overseas Marie Guévenoux, as well as the three high civil servants appointed to form a newly-created mission, tasked to restore talks among a deeply fractured and antagonistic political spectrum.

He also left a sense of scepticism regarding what several observers have perceived as a potentially risky gamble on the French Pacific territory.

New Caledonia has been the scene of deadly and destructive riots since 13 May 2024.

The main perceived cause is the vote by both Upper (3 April) and Lower (14 May) Houses of Parliament in Paris of a proposed constitutional amendment that would "unfreeze" New Caledonia's list of eligible voters at local (provincial) elections and therefore to allow some 25,000 more citizens to join the restricted list.

This is perceived by pro-independence movements (who currently hold a majority in three [the Northern Province, the Loyalty Islands province and the local Congress] of the five institutions set up since 1998 under the autonomy-loaded Nouméa Accord) as potentially eroding their political representation in New Caledonia.

Until now, the restrictions imposed that no one who has not resided in New Caledonia before 1998 can take part in local polls (for the three provincial assemblies and the local Parliament, the Congress).

The controversial amendment would "unfreeze" the 1998 landmark and introduce the obligation of having resided in New Caledonia for at least ten years uninterrupted.

However, it is not yet fully enacted: it still needs to be approved by the French Congress, a joint sitting of both French Houses of Parliament, by a required majority of two thirds.

Macron, last week, while in New Caledonia, said although he initially planned to convene the Congress as soon as possible, he would now wait until the end of June.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to local media pool just before leaving New Caledonia on 24 May 2024.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to local media pool just before leaving New Caledonia on 24 May 2024. Photo: Screenshot / Caledonia TV

Macron's conditions and 3-step-strategy

Speaking at a press conference after talking to pro-independence and "loyalist" (pro-France) parties, separately, he said he had made a commitment.

"So my commitment is not to force (the Congress's vote) and for a few weeks, try to give a chance to appeasement and dialogue. But this is not a blank cheque because we cannot give in to violence", he said.

"This must go along the following steps: the first is that all blockades, points of violence be lifted immediately and that there should be a very clear call in this sense from the FLNKS (the pro-independence front) and the CCAT (a self-styled "Field Action Coordination Committee" revived last year by Union Calédonienne [UC], one component of the FLNKS)", he said on Friday.

He said this call must take place "in the coming hours" and its effects should roll out "in the coming hours and days".

The second step, he said, was that "as soon as (blockades lifting) are effective and observed, the state of emergency will be lifted".

"This third step is that negotiations (between local parties) resume immediately" so that a comprehensive accord (on New Caledonia's long-term political future) is reached".

"And this is why, as the pro-independence parties have asked me, I have accepted the notion of this mediation and work mission who have travelled with me and who will stay here and start this work", he elaborated.

Macron said in about one month "maximum", he would reassess the situation to see "if the calm has returned" and "if everyone has sincerely re-engaged (in talks).

"At this time, we will allow more time so this agreement be finalised so that it is eventually integrated in our Constitution".

The much-desired local agreement was expected to include the electoral roll's sensitive issue, but also several other far-reaching questions such as "the organisation of powers between New Caledonia's government and its provinces, the allotment of seats, New Caledonia's citizenship, a new 'social contract' to tackle economic disparities and inequalities...New Caledonia economy's future, its diversifications and in particular the nickel industry...and the question of the vote on self-determination".

Macron also said that this future agreement should involve not only political parties, but also economic stakeholders, among others and that even before it becomes part of the French Constitution, it should also be "submitted to the vote of New Caledonia's population".

Controversial CCAT leader Christian Téin speaking at a video conference on Friday 24 May.

Controversial CCAT leader Christian Téin speaking at a video conference on Friday 24 May. Photo: Supplied

Referendum instead of Congress joint sitting?

One point on which he did not elaborate immediately, however, was yet another option available to him: that instead of convening the French Congress, he could transform the legislative process for this Constitutional amendment into a national referendum.

"As I speak, this reform could either be submitted to the Congress to a vote of the three-fifths, or submitted to the French population, our compatriots, by way of a referendum", he said.

He elaborated in an interview with French national daily Le Parisien on Sunday, saying this scenario would be likely if New Caledonia's political parties failed to reach an inclusive agreement soon enough.

"I am making a gesture of appeasement and overture, but I will never make a decision to postpone or suspend (the amendment) under the pressure of violence", he said.

"They all gave me their commitment to resume the global discussions. It will not be said that I have not given my maximum to give every chance to peace", he stressed.

No going back on the 3 referendums (2018, 2020 and 2021)

Macron also stressed that since he came to power (in 2017), the provisions of the 1998 Nouméa Accord had been "strictly applied".

The Accord had prescribed that before it ended, three self-determination referendums should be held.

"The first was requested by the (French) State, the second by loyalist parties, the third was requested by the pro-independence parties in April 2021. This should not be forgotten. So we followed the path that had been drawn", he said.

The third referendum took place in December 2021, but was boycotted by pro-independence parties who later claimed it was not legitimate.

All the consultations had resulted in a majority rejection of independence.

'Political response': why was the CCAT included?

Macron was also asked why, during his marathon talks on Thursday last week in Nouméa, he had allowed the controversial CCAT leader Christian Téin to be included in the pro-independence delegation.

"There have been political instructions. CCAT leaders and founders are political leaders linked to the FLNKS. At the same time, eminent FLNKS leaders told me that inside those who have joined CCAT, you can find people who have served numerous jail terms, that they are very difficult to control and that they have committed crimes, sometimes murders. So at the moment, this CCAT movement can be seen as multi-shaped".

"They also asked me to include (Théin) because, they said, this way, it would be more efficient, he has a political responsibility. So for the sake of efficiency, I have accepted their request. On my part, it's a gesture of trust and responsibility", the French President told the media.

"The bet we are making collectively and responsibly, it is that if this indeed is a political movement, then let's bring about a political solution and challenge these parties to follow a political approach. The following days will tell us what is the nature of this movement, according to its response", he said.

"They have made commitments to me, I have made commitments to them. I will see if they keep their word and then we will clarify. Either, politically, they decide not to keep their commitment or maybe they won't be able to keep it, so we will see if this is a political or insurrectional movement. I don't want to put a label on it at this stage".

"I hope they will keep their word and act upon what they have committed to. If this is what happens, I will be proven right. If not, I will be proven wrong", Macron explained.

With another handful of CCAT leaders, Théin was under house arrest since last week, under the provisions of the state of emergency.

But on Thursday, he was granted special permission to attend talks with Macron, as part of the pro-independence delegation.

The FLNKS response

Responding to Macron's stance, the FLNKS came up with a communiqué released on Saturday.

"The solution to this crisis can only come through a political, not repressive response", said the document signed by Congress Chair Roch Wamytan, Victor Tutugoro and Patrick Jomessy.

"Following a firm request from the FLNKS, this meeting (with Macron) took place in a bilateral format excluding the presence of (French) Ministers Sébastien Lecornu (Defence) and Gérald Darmanin( Home Affairs and Overseas) whom we hold responsible for the failure to exit the Nouméa Accord, as well as the current carnage", the political pro-independence umbrella wrote.

The document regrets that Macron "has only slightly budged from its positions" but at the same time welcomes the fact that "Kanaky-New Caledonia's institutional future, at last, is dealt with directly by President Macron with all the seriousness and commitment it deserves" .

In the same document, the FLNKS mentions its aim to "appease tensions and to find lasting solutions for our country", but stresses its "unvarying determination" to have "Kanaky-New Caledonia accede to full sovereignty".

The organisation also blames the French government for "the chaotic situation we are currently undergoing", due to the "end of the French State's impartiality and quest for consensus" that, the FLNKS says, is now replaced by "methods of forceful passage at the service of anti-independence forces".

In the same release, the political organisation is again asking for the controversial Constitutional amendment to be withdrawn and that the high-level "mission" for political dialogue should consist not only of French civil servants, but also of French, regional (Pacific) or international personalities so as to create conditions that are conducive to an appeased dialogue towards a global political agreement".

But at the same time, the FLNKS "regrets the extreme violence" used by French security forces since the riots began on May 13.

However, the FLNKS writes it takes into account Macron's call for a "de-escalation" so as to foster a peaceful political dialogue and "renews its appeal for calm and asks (its militants) to "loosen the grip" on the numerous roadblocks and barricades erected throughout the archipelago's roads.

Rémi Bastille, Eric Thiers and Frédéric Pottier are the three members of a mission appointed by President Macron last week to restore political dialogue in riot-torn New Caledonia – Photo  POOL

Rémi Bastille, Eric Thiers and Frédéric Pottier are the three members of a mission appointed by President Macron last week to restore political dialogue in riot-torn New Caledonia. Photo: Supplied

Dialogue mission: calls to be extended to more members, including internationally

The dialogue mission brought last week by Macron includes thee high-profile French civil servants who have been working on New Caledonia's issues in the past: Frédéric Potier (44) was a special adviser to Socialist PM Manuel Vals, Rémi Bastille (41) has been in charge of "institutional issues" in New Caledonia, Eric Thiers (54) was also a special advisor to the French President, in charge of New Caledonia's issues.

Delegate minister for Overseas Marie Guévenoux said at the weekend in Nouméa that the three have "started working on their mission".

The CCAT response

One day earlier, controversial CCAT leader Christian Téin, had already sent his response to Macron's call on swift lifting of all roadblocks, a precondition to the end of state of urgency.

But there was no such call from Théin, also a prominent member of UC.

"We remain mobilised. We maintain all the resistance in the neighbourhoods. But this is a resistance when we are careful, we take care of our lives, we take care of our children", he said to the attention of SCAT sympathisers.

Mentioning his intention to visit militants on the ground, "to ask that the grip be loosened on main access roads', he said "it was never CCAT's goal to affect people's lives".

"As far as CCAT's responsibilities go, (on the electoral roll constitutional amendment), we say we must go on to the end, we will not give up", he assured. But in a coordinated, structured, organised manner so we can reach our goals. And the main goal is accession to full sovereignty for our country".

Controversial CCAT leader Christian Téin speaking at a video conference on Friday 24 May. Photo screenshot Facebook

Other reactions

Other political reactions to Macron's announcements include those from the pro-France (loyalist) parties, including Les Loyalistes leader Sonia Backès.

"Everyone has to fulfil their part of the deal. But this time of dialogue and talks is only possible if we're not under pressure of violence and threats. I am sure there is a space for a solution for comprehensive agreement, but on condition that this violence cease immediately", she told local media.

Louis Mapou, New Caledonia's government President, from the pro-independence camp, hailed Macron's "will to walk a bit along the road with us".

A moderate by reputation, Mapou said it was up to every politician to act responsibly.

"There's no other choice, we can't do otherwise", he commented.

Nicolas Metzdorf, one of the two New Caledonian MPs in the French National Assembly, said he would dedicate his energy to "find a global agreement with our partners".

Strong divisions within both camps

However, strong and apparent divisions remain within both pro-France and pro-independence camps.

To a point that on Thursday, during his express talks with the pro-France parties, Macron had to hold two separate sessions: one for Les Loyalistes and Le Rassemblement (LR) and a separate one for Calédonie Ensemble, a more moderate pro-France party.

On the future course of the controversial electoral roll amendment, Calédonie Ensemble has been advocating for a postponement of the French Congress meeting, while Backès and Metzdorf are staunch supporters of a fast enactment.

In an interview with loyalist Radio Rythme Bleu, Backès also expressed concern on the 'internal dissensions" between hardliners and moderates within the pro-independence camp.

"Which means no one, on their side, is able to really engage in a comprehensive long-term agreement for New Caledonia's political future".

"It's difficult to blame some of them for lacking courage because some of them face the very real threat of taking a bullet (from their own camp)", she said.

FLNKS leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, who signed the Matignon Accord in 1988, with pro-France leader Jacques Lafleur, was shot dead one year later by a hard-line member of the pro-independence camp.

Within the pro-independence umbrella FLNKS (Kanak socialist national liberation front), the main components are the Union Calédonienne (UC, more radical) but also more moderate parties such as PALIKA (Kanak Liberation Party) and UPM (Progressist Union in Melanesia).

In October 2023, in the face of significant disagreements within the FLNKS, UC decided to revive its CCAT (Field Actions Coordinating Committee) to launch a series of planned and coordinated actions that, from peaceful demonstrations, led to the current unrest.

Hard-liners have taken over

Metzdorf conquers.

In a public release on social network Facebook at the weekend, in reaction to CCAT's video, he alleged that "a radicalised branch of the pro-independence movement has used the electoral roll issue as an excuse to obtain through the streets what they could not obtain through the ballot boxes".

He still expressed hope that even though, in this context, "it will be difficult, but not impossible" to reach a comprehensive agreement on New Caledonia's future.

He cited Mapou's moderate tone and "constructive words", especially during recent heated debates on New Caledonia's ailing nickel industry and the French-proposed 200-million-Euro rescue plan.

He said he was ready to "contribute towards finding a deal", but added he was aware that "the pro-independence leaders who would accept it will take big risks" because they face "a regime of terror put in place by CCAT and one part of the UC".

"And this terror that strikes us today has been striking the moderate pro-independence leaders for a long time".

Backès goes as far as labelling the recent events "a coup d'état".

"But where these actions are not really coherent, in my view, because now, after all this destruction, we have never been so dependent on France. We'll never be able to reconstruct alone. The (French) State will stand on our side in the middle and long term", she said.

The latest estimates from New Caledonia's Chamber of Commerce (CCI) are placing a figure bordering one billion Euros in damages due to arson, looting and destruction to main Nouméa companies, businesses and retail stores.

The influence of French national and European politics?

Macron's postures are taking place in a sensitive environment, not only in New Caledonia but in its region and particularly in France, where he and his party "Renaissance" are campaigning to obtain seats in the forthcoming European Parliament elections (9 June 2024).

With Macron's party main contender being Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) on the French national political chessboard, New Caledonia, these days, is also very often a subject of contention during heated debates between rival parties.

Macron is therefore more careful than ever to strike the right balance between a firm stance on the New Caledonian crisis, while trying to appease tensions on the ground, as he did last week with his swift 35,000 kilometre-long round trip to the Pacific and a stay for less than 24 hours.

Dangerous parallels to 1988 French Presidential elections

For New Caledonia, French electoral contexts have had disastrous repercussions in the past.

In May 1988, while incumbent Socialist François Mitterrand was facing right-wing Jacques Chirac (then his Prime Minister under a rare "cohabitation" scenario) at the second round of French Presidential elections, New Caledonia was already plunged into a civil war that culminated at the time with a hostage crisis on Ouvéa Island (Loyalty Islands group).

A group of pro-independence militants had taken French gendarmes into a grotto.

On 4 May 1988, a French special operation codenamed "Victor", relying on special forces, ended the hostage crisis with a heavy toll of 19 pro-independence Kanaks and two gendarmes killed, amidst later allegations of severe human rights violations.

Mitterrand and Chirac blamed each other for the final decision to authorise the attack, Mitterrand entourage saying he was not kept in the loop, even though the French President is at all times Commander-in-Chief of the Army and has the final say for all operations.

Mitterrand was re-elected for a second term on 8 May 1988.

He appointed Michel Rocard as his Prime minister and tasked him to put an end to half a decade of civil unrest in New Caledonia.

Within a few months, after setting up a dialogue mission to restore communications with New Caledonia's political leaders, Rocard, loyalist Jacques Lafleur and pro-independence FLNKS leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou signed the "Matignon-Oudinot Accords".

The agreement paved the way for the "Nouméa Accord" in 1998, implementing a gradual process of transfer of powers from mainland France to local authorities, in such fields as education, health, while France retained "regal" powers such as Defence, Foreign Affairs and Currency.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs