24 May 2024

French claws in the Pacific

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 24 May 2024

France's fight to remain relevant in the Pacific is clashing with the desire of indigenous Kanaks to assert their independence - with flammable results

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a meeting with New Caledonia's elected officials and local representatives at the French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc's residence in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia on May 23, 2024. Macron flew to France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia on a politically risky visit aiming to defuse a crisis after nine days of riots that have killed six people and injured hundreds. Macron's sudden decision to fly to the southwest Pacific archipelago, some 17,000 kilometres (10,500 miles) from mainland France, is a sign of the gravity with which the government views the pro-separatist violence.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a meeting with New Caledonia's elected officials and local representatives at the French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc's residence in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia on 23 May, 2024. Photo: Pool / Ludovic Marin / AFP

French president Emmanuel Macron's priority on his rush visit to New Caledonia is to quell the unrest tearing at the territory for nearly two weeks.

To that end he's announced today he will delay the voting reform that's been the spark for violence.

Macron says his ultimate aim still was to sign the measure into law but only if peace returns.

A Pacific leader here says France is in the Pacific for the long haul, while the indigenous Kanaks have been fighting for independence for decades and won't give up.

"To me Kanak independence is inevitable," says Sir Collin Tukuitonga, who lived and worked there for several years. "I think France is prolonging the inevitable."

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)

Unrest flared up last week after Paris-backed electoral reforms that would give voting rights to about 25,000 non-indigenous New Caledonia residents. Photo: DELPHINE MAYEUR / AFP

He says it is the worst conflict in the archipelago since the 1980s but there has been ongoing simmering tension between the pro-liberation movement and pro-France residents.

The unrest flared up last week after Paris backed electoral reforms that would give provincial election voting rights to about 25,000 non-indigenous residents. 

Voters in France support the move while the Kanaks see it as a dilution of their vote, a threat to their move towards independence; a recolonisation.

Sir Collin, who headed the Pacific Community international development organisation in Noumea until 2019, says the angry response of pro-independence activists should not have surprised France.

"I was just amazed at how the French had provoked it," he says.

The electoral reform follows three referenda on independence in recent years, the first two of which the Kanaks narrowly failed to get independence, while the third was boycotted by indigenous voters because it was held during the pandemic. France went ahead against their wishes.

"This latest move was really a precipitant, the French really ought to have seen it coming. When you try to add however many more votes of non-Kanaky, this was bound to happen, this was France's idea of trying to dilute the Kanaky vote to have more non-Kanaky voters on the list."

Dr Collin Tukuitonga

Sir Collin Tukuitonga thinks the French president Emmanuel Macron should've expected these riots after the government's latest move. Photo: supplied by University of Auckland

Sir Collin is in daily contact with friends there who have described the horrors of the deadly riots. Some have taken matters into their own hands and formed neighbourhood militia to protect their families and property.

He says France clearly wants to keep a strong presence in the region with its Indo-Pacific strategy to counter the influence of China.

"It wants to remain in the Pacific, it wants to have influence. They have been promoting French language, French culture through Alliance Française, so I think it's a combination of things.

"France likes to be described as a friend of the Pacific Islands; we haven't mentioned the UN votes that often come by if they want a global position on something, they'd want support from the pacific island nations."

Sir Collin recalls a visit in 2014 by the former president Francois Hollande who was "quite excited when some Pacific leaders at the time described France as a Pacific nation".

He believes France has maintained New Caledonia's dependence on it by continuing to send doctors, nurses and other professionals there.

"Some people say that is a deliberate French strategy to keep the Kanak population unable to govern their own country. This is the reality, I think there are very few doctors who are Kanak, very few teachers and so they rely very heavily on the deployments from Paris to help run New Caledonia." 

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