French security presence in Kanaky New Caledonia set to remain ‘indefinitely’ after Macron’s failed visit?


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By Mick Hall

French security forces sent to quell deadly violence in New Caledonia could remain indefinitely if the country’s decolonisation process continues to stall and political polarisation is not addressed.

President Emmanuel Macron arrived in the Pacific territory on Thursday unsuccessfully seeking a political solution with local parties following the eruption of protests and violence that included sporadic gun battles, which claimed the lives of two gendarmes (French paramilitary police) and four civilians.

Macron, who left Nouméa early today, said the 3000-strong force deployed from France would remain “as long as necessary”, emphasising a return to calm and security was “the absolute priority”.

He met with politicians and business representatives during a summit that included independence leaders.

Before the summit, Macron faced anger from those who hold his hubris responsible for the chaos.

“Here comes the fireman after he set the fire!” Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) of New Caledonia’s Jimmy Naouna posted on X after Macron’s office announced his surprise visit.

In a further post, Naouna said Macron and those accompanying him on the visit, Overseas and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Locornu, had ignored calls for peaceful talks to resolve issues over self-determination for the island nation for months and that they could not be trusted anymore.

‘Republican order will be restored’
About 1000 more security force members were being sent to the Pacific archipelago at the weekend, when France’s High Commissioner Louis Le Franc vowed in a televised address that “Republican order will be re-established, whatever the cost”, adding if indigenous kanak pro-independence activists “want to use their arms, they will be risking the worst”.

He said French security forces would stage “harassment” raids to reclaim territory held by pro-independence groups, which were ongoing.

Darmanin claimed to French TV that Azerbaijan was behind the protests, citing the appearance of Azerbaijani flags alongside Kanak flags at the protests. The Caucasus country called the accusations baseless.

Azerbaijan has been vocal in condemning French colonialism in recent times.

In July last year it invited pro-independence groups from several dependencies, including “French” Polynesia and New Caledonia, for a conference towards the complete elimination of colonialism. It was organised by the Buku Initiative Group, which released a statement last week in solidarity with Kanaks resisting the France’s constitutional changes.

The crisis began after France’s National Assembly (lower house) on May 13 passed a bill removing electoral restrictions protecting the demographic status of the nation’s indigenous Kanak people, as guaranteed under the Nouméa Accord.

The 1998 agreement had charted a path to decolonisation after decades of conflict. The bill will get rid of one of the agreement’s provisions by allowing residents who arrived in the country after 1998 to vote, shifting the balance of power away from the indigenous population and weakening their chances of winning independence via a referendum.

The change, which followed a constitutional review initiated by Darmanin, would allow French nationals living in the territory for at least 10 years continuously to vote in local elections.

Macron on the French troops in New Caledonia.    Video: Al Jazeera.

Strategic, economic interest
France retains a strategic and economic interest in the small territory of 270,000 residents. It is the third-largest exporter of nickel globally, while France is also attempting to reposition itself as a Western security partner in the Pacific with its own Indo-Pacific strategic policy.

Last Sunday, about 600 security force members burst through about 70 barricades, which included dozens of burn-out vehicles, that had been blocking a 65 km stretch of road from the capital Nouméa to La Tontouta international airport. Some of the barricades were immediately re-erected.

A 6pm to 6am curfew remains in place until the end of a state of emergency next Monday. Disenfranchised youth have been responsible for most of the rioting.  Tik Tok has also been banned and more than 230 people have so far been arrested.

Both New Zealand and Australia began emergency repatriations on Tuesday, May 21 using military aircraft flying from the local Magenta airport, 4km outside the capital.

Macron has been accused of sparking the turmoil by imposing a colonial agenda on the country, running contrary to the Nouméa Accord.

Eddy Banare, a researcher in comparative literature with an interest in Kanak identity/political discourse at the Université de la Nouvelle-Calédonie, told Café Pacific that Macron and his government had demonstrated a serious lack of understanding of the New Caledonian issue and had failed to maintain a dialogue with local parties.

“The Nouméa Accord is based on an agreement between political actors in New Caledonia. This agreement has been compromised,” he said.

Macron ‘aligned with hardest right’
“Macron has aligned himself with the hardest right of the New Caledonian political spectrum, which, in its fervour to maintain a French New Caledonia, rejects the spirit of collegiality established by the Nouméa Accord by disregarding the Kanak independence claim and sabotaging the conditions for dialogue.”

Macron had three meetings of his Defence and National Security Council within a week before travelling to New Caledonia and his decision to send more troops is a reflection of a serious breakdown of order in New Caledonian society not seen since the 1980s.

“Everything seems to be set for the long term,” Banare said, adding that 100,000 firearms currently circulating in the country also needed to be taken out of the equation. Armed pro-France loyalist militias and anti-colonial groups have been active during the protests.

Three of those killed were Kanaks, shot by armed civilians.

Banare said, in the absence of an impartial arbitrator, Australia and New Zealand should host roundtable talks, bringing together New Caledonian parties, a representation of the French government, and experts in international law and indigenous issues in the Pacific.

The Pacific Regional Non-Governmental Organisations Alliance (PRNGA) on Monday, May 20 also urged the UN and Pacific leaders to mediate dialogue towards restoring “a just and peaceful transition”.

In a statement, the organisation criticised Macron for his “poorly hidden agenda to prolong colonial control over the territory” and for ignoring warnings by indigenous groups that the unilateral decision to impose electoral changes could end 30 years of relative peace in New Caledonia.

‘Misuse of institutional processes’
“This week, as the United Nations Decolonisation Committee (C24) sits in Caracas, Venezuela, to hear updates on the list of non-self-governing territories to be decolonised, France imposes a state of emergency on Kanaky-New Caledonia and sends more troops to the Pacific territory to restore order,” it said.

“Ironically, its overtures for law and order and for peace are in stark contrast to the misuse of institutional processes to inflict violence on the Kanaky people, as evidenced by behaviour in Paris.”

The deaths and destruction of property have left many in the economically divided country wary and on edge. The conflict is having a serious impact on the fragile economy, as well as affecting medical and food supplies across the island.

Whakatane-based Kanak Rodney Pirini said youth at the forefront of the protests were profoundly marginalised, their positions made worse after Kanak people began moving into urban centres over past decades, particularly into the capital, where extremes of wealth and poverty were most pronounced.

Pirini, a former Union Calédonienne (UC) member (part of the FLNKS) who had been jailed several times during protests in the mid-1980s, said the destructiveness of last week’s protests was a reflection of that social reality.

“Forty years after I was protesting, you have a lot of young people in town, with no job, with nothing, living side by side with rich French people. One block could be rich people, 20 metres away you have a block of poor people. It’s crazy.”

Louis Lagarde, an associate professor of literature, language and social sciences at University of New Caledonia, said initiating talks among the local communities should be a priority.

“It is still too early to predict when troops will leave the archipelago,” he told Café Pacific. “Their present role is to secure the airports, the port, gain and allow access to hospitals, preserve the last standing shops and their restocking, and free the blockades on the main roads. Patients under dialysis are at heavy risk, and so are other patients with heavy treatments, pregnant women and so on

“One has to understand that the present New Caledonia government, with a pro-independence majority and president, as well as the customary senate president, have urged calm on multiple occasions, to no – or little – avail. As harsh as it seems, the presence of military and police reinforcements is still crucial.”

Colonial history
France officially took possession of Kanaky, or New Caledonia, in 1853 and colonisation saw the Kanaks forced from their lands, resulting in several failed rebellions over the decades to come.

New Caledonia’s modern political trajectory towards decolonisation was put in motion after the Matignon-Oudinot Accords were signed in 1988 by Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou and leader of the anti-independence Rally for Caledonia in the Republic (RPCR) party, Jacques Lafleur and France. It was approved in a referendum by 80 percent of the electorate.

The agreement sought compromise and a peaceful settlement after a period of civil war and armed resistance to French rule.

FLNKS leaders Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwéné Yeiwéné were assassinated by FLNKS militants opposed to the peace deal less than a year later.

The Nouméa Accords recognised Kanaks as the indigenous peoples of Kanaky and set out mechanisms to address both historical wrongs and transfer governance powers from France. Kanaks make up approximately 40 percent of New Caledonia’s population and the provisions to restrict voting to those resident in the country prior to 1998 were designed to keep Kanaks’ electoral strength while a peaceful transition towards independence unfolded.

A series of referendums on independence was proposed, the first of which took place in 2018, registering a 43.3 percent in favour of independence, followed by a higher 46.7 percent vote in a 2020 referendum.

The third referendum in December 2021 marked a slide towards today’s polarisation and is a key antecedent to the riots.

Calls for a postponement by independence parties after indigenous communities were hit hard by the covid-19 delta variant were ignored by France and the vote went ahead. After taking the issue to the UN Fourth Committee on Decolonisation, independence parties boycotted the referendum, resulting in a 44 percent voter turnout — or half of numbers that turned out in 2020.

The vote delivered a mere 3.5 percent backing for independence.

Macron at the time hailed the vote as a “massive victory” for the pro-loyalist side. Pro-independence groups have been calling for another referendum.

Mick Hall has been a journalist for more than 20 years, in both the UK and, since 2009, in New Zealand. He has worked for the Irish Post in London, the Belfast Telegraph, Pagemasters, a former subsidiary of the Australian Associated Press, as well as News Corp in Australia.

Cafe Pacific Publisher
Cafe Pacific Publisher
Café Pacific's duty editor.
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