31 May 2024

'France has caused this crisis': Pacific Islands Forum offers support to New Caledonia

11:25 am on 31 May 2024
A temporary burning roadblock set up by demonstrators is seen in Noumea on May 14, 2024, amid protests linked to a debate on a constitutional bill aimed at enlarging the electorate for upcoming elections of the overseas French territory of New Caledonia. After scenes of violence of "great intensity" including burned vehicles, looted stores and clashes between demonstrators and the police, a curfew was decreed in Noumea, 17,000 kilometers from Paris, as the independentists of the overseas French territory of New Caledonia oppose a constitutional revision they fear will "further minimize the indigenous Kanak people". (Photo by Mathurin DEREL / AFP)

A temporary burning roadblock set up by demonstrators is seen in Noumea on May 14, 2024, amid protests linked to a debate on a constitutional bill aimed at enlarging the electorate for upcoming elections of the overseas French territory of New Caledonia. Photo: AFP / Mathurin Derel

Cook Islands prime minister and Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) chair Mark Brown has written to the president of the government of New Caledonia, to offer support in finding a way forward.

Brown said the political situation in the French territory - which is a full member of the PIF - remains deeply concerning to the Forum family.

He said there are a number of mechanisms and processes available to PIF members to help resolve "complex and historical issues" which remain "unsettled".

He also stressed implementing an agreed way forward "must not be rushed".

"Our Pacific region is home to independent experts and skilled personnel, that are familiar with this region, its history, its people, and importantly, its context, that can support all parties to move this process forward," Brown said.

"Pacific Islands Forum [is ready to] to facilitate and provide a supported and neutral space for all parties to come together in the spirit of the Pacific Way, to find an agreed way forward that safeguards the interests of the people of New Caledonia."

Macron (right) with New Caledonia’s President Louis Mapou (left) and Congress President Roch Wamytan (centre).

Macron (right) with New Caledonia’s President Louis Mapou (left) and Congress President Roch Wamytan (centre). Photo: Supplied

French President Emanuel Macron came and left Noumea without announcing a return to a freeze or scrapping of the controversial constitutional amendment, which indigenous Kanaks and pro-independence groups have been calling for.

He promised dialogue would continue, "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," he said.

Indigenous Kanaks have also called for Macron to investigate the death toll, with more young rioters feared dead, and for the proposed constitutional amendments to be withdrawn.

Concerns have also been raised around the Kanak population facing a great deal of inequity and poor health, education and job outcomes.

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    "France has caused this crisis by its failure to recognise the Kanaks' call for the third referendum to be deferred," Regenvanu said.

    Regenvanu said Macron's visit made no difference "because France has to withdraw its legislative change to open the electoral rolls to allow for a resolution through dialogue".

    He said if that did not happen it will push the situation back to the cycle of violence that was prevalent in the 1980s.

    "We are calling on France to withdraw the legislative proposals, and come back to the table and set up a new accord with the independentists and the anti-independentists in the territory," Regenvanu said.

    "If France does not withdraw the legislative amendments, the violence will continue."

    This photograph shows a Kanak flag waving next to a burning vehicle at an independantist roadblock at La Tamoa, in the commune of Paita, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia on May 19, 2024. French forces smashed through about 60 road blocks to clear the way from conflict-stricken New Caledonia's capital to the airport but have still not reopened the route, a top government official said on May 19, 2024. (Photo by Delphine Mayeur / AFP)

    This photograph shows a Kanak flag waving next to a burning vehicle at an independantist roadblock at La Tamoa, in the commune of Paita, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia on 19 May, 2024. Photo: DELPHINE MAYEUR / AFP

    'France's credibility challenged'

    Massey University Defence and Security Studies Associate Professor Dr Powles said the PIF had produced a "fairly scathing" report on the third and final New Caledonia referendum.

    But the French Preisdent's stand on the issue of the third self-determination referendum (held in December 2021 and boycotted by the pro-independence camp) is: "I will not go back on this."

    Dr Powles said there are options for the Forum Secretariat, including utilising the existing regional crisis mechanism under the Biketawa Declaration.

    The declaration has been used on a number of occasions in the Pacific, in Nauru, in Solomon Islands, as well as in several other cases, she said.

    "France's credibility was strongly challenged by virtue of the fact that it is a colonial power in the Pacific," Dr Powles said.

    "A resilient Pacific is a Pacific in which all Pacific peoples are free and independent. And that is that is really the best type of resilience which will keep the region safe."