Politics heats up in New Caledonia

Independence supporters and opponents gear up for next year’s elections


Young voters learn Kanak history...charismatic Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou who was assassinated in 1989.-- Nic Maclellan

New Caledonia’s next Congressional elections will not be held until May 2014, but it seems like the electoral campaign has already begun.

In recent months, politics in the French Pacific colony has been hotting up as supporters and opponents of independence prepare for next year’s electoral contest. 

Since the Noumea Accord was signed in May 1998, there has been a gradual transfer of authority from Paris to Noumea. But the Congress elected in 2014 will have a major decision. By 3/5 majority, the Congress can decide whether to proceed to a referendum on the transfer of the remaining sovereign powers (defence, foreign policy, police, courts and currency).

A vote after 2014 to transfer these powers would mean the creation of an independent and sovereign nation.

Many opponents of independence have welcomed the Noumea Accord’s devolution of authority to the local government and administration, but they are fiercely opposed to the final breach with the French Republic.

In contrast, most indigenous Kanaks—who rose in revolt against French colonialism in the 1980s—see the Noumea Accord as the roadmap for New Caledonia’s political and economic decolonisation.

Last December, over 50 leaders from New Caledonia’s independence and loyalist parties gathered in Paris. The occasion—the 10th meeting of the Committee of Signatories to the Noumea Accord—allowed supporters and opponents of independence to meet with the new French government to discuss the implementation of the Accord.

But at home, politics is increasingly divided. There are tensions within the anti-independence community over the best way to resist the call for independence.

In turn, the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) is seeking support from the Pacific Islands Forum and the United Nations for the final steps to independence after 2014.

Dialogue in Paris

The December conference of the Committee of Signatories was the first chance for a formal meeting between New Caledonia’s political leadership and President Francois Hollande, of the Socialist Party, who defeated conservative leader Nicolas Sarkozy in the May 2012 French Presidential elections.

Speaking to the assembled delegates at the Presidential Palace in Paris, President Hollande reaffirmed France’s support for the Noumea Accord and described himself as both “the inheritor and guarantor of the commitments made in the Accord.”

The Noumea Accord was originally signed in May 1998 by representatives of the French State, FLNKS and the anti-independence RPCR, led by Jacques Lafleur.

But Lafleur and fellow signatory Charles Pidjot of the FLNKS have since died and the RPCR has split into three competing anti-independence parties: Rassemblement UMP (RUMP) led by Pierre Frogier; Avenir Ensemble (AE), led by Harold Martin, the current President of New Caledonia; and Calédonie Ensemble (CE) led by Philippe Gomes, who served as New Caledonia’s President between 2009 and 2011.

The monitoring committee for the Accord now includes all major political parties, including leaders who opposed the agreement when it was first signed 15 years ago.

The notable absence from the Paris conference was the pro-independence Parti Travailliste (Labour Party), which held its own congress at the same time.

The Paris meeting re-confirmed the financial support that France provides to New Caledonia to support the implementation of the Accord (valued at 404 million Euros in 2011-15).

The delegates also discussed a range of practical issues, including the creation of a Competition Commission and a price-watch body to address the rising cost of living (with prices 34 percent higher in New Caledonia than in France).

Education was a key concern: in January 2012, New Caledonia gained control of secondary education, meaning a massive increase in the local budget and the number of teachers employed by Noumea rather than Paris.

New Caledonian leaders lobbied for an increase in the education budget to cover funding for two new high schools—at Mont Dore in the south and Pouembout in the north—that are due to open in 2016.

A key debate focused on the timetable for the transfer of the remaining powers to the government of New Caledonia. In July this year, the transfer of civil and commercial law is proposed, with more powers to be transferred in early 2014.

The Paris meeting agreed to create an ongoing inter-ministerial committee to support Noumea’s authority over new sectors of administration and economy.

As the Noumea Accord comes towards its end, there are a range of structures to determine what will follow. At its meeting in June 2010, the Committee of Signatories created three sub-committees: one to look at the implementation of the Accord and the transfer of powers from Paris to Noumea; another to investigate the options for political reform after 2014; and a third, the Comité Stratégique Industriel (CSI), headed by senior French public servant Anne Duthilleul, to investigate the operations of New Caledonia’s nickel industry (see story on page 21 on changes in the mining sector).

After the meeting, politicians from all sides said that it was productive (though former FLNKS President Roch Wamytan noted: “It would have been better if we’d worked to ensure the voice of FLNKS could be heard, given that France’s Overseas Minister dominated the discussion.”)

Major independence parties are calling for the full implementation of the Noumea Accord, urging the French State to respect the wishes of New Caledonian citizens.

Paul Neaoutyine, President of the Parti de Libération Kanak (Palika), stated: “It’s for New Caledonians to decide what they will do with the transfer of powers and the referendum. I am the bearer of sovereignty and independence.

“In the case that a majority of voters are opposed to that, we must stop again to sit down and talk. At that time, we’ll be in a situation of quasi-independence as all the ordinary powers will have been transferred.”

In Paris, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault promised that a “neutral and impartial State” would support decisions made by New Caledonians after 2014 (a not-so-subtle dig at former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who publicly stated his belief that New Caledonia should remain within the French Republic).

Gomes victory stirs debate

The measured dialogue in Paris belies the increasingly tense relations between political leaders at home.

These debates intensified after the French Presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012. The vote for France’s National Assembly and Senate in June 2012 saw a major reversal for the Rassemblement UMP (RUMP) party, which had held New Caledonia’s two Assembly seats for many years.

While RUMP President Frogier still serves as New Caledonia’s Senator in Paris, RUMP’s Gael Yanno and Eric Gay both lost their Assembly seats to Philippe Gomes and Sonia Lagarde of the Calédonie Ensemble party.

The victory for Gomes was sweet revenge. RUMP had worked in a de facto alliance with the independence movement to bring down Gomes’ government in 2011, elevating Avenir Ensemble’s Harold Martin to the presidency (a process detailed in ISLANDS BUSINESS in May 2011).

Gomes’ victory over RUMP also reflects uncertainty in the European settler community over the way that Frogier had opened dialogue with the Kanak leadership, giving legitimacy to their demand for independence.

Frogier retains his commitment to France, stating: “There will never be a majority in favour of independence.”

But after New Caledonia’s 2009 elections, the RUMP President collaborated with Charles Pidjot (President of the largest independence party Union Calédonienne), supporting the March 2011 election of FLNKS leader Wamytan as Speaker of the Congress—the first time in over 30 years an independence supporter had held the post.

Frogier also proposed an agreement to fly both the French and Kanaky flags over public buildings (see story Two Flags flying? on page 19).

But Gomes was opposed to Wamytan’s activism in the parliamentary role as the Kanak leader revived committee work and toured the region to build links with other Melanesian parliaments.

Wamytan’s term was cut short last August, to be replaced by Gerard Podjoa of Gomes’ Calédonie Ensemble.

Returning from Paris in December, Gomes launched a no-confidence motion against the Martin Government, criticising the “political and moral contract between RUMP, Avenir Ensemble, Union Calédonienne and Parti Travailliste.” However, the motion failed by 38 to 14 votes, only winning support from his own party Palika and one UC dissident.

Frogier’s initiatives have already caused ructions in his own party, the Rassemblement UMP (RUMP). 

His de facto alliance with elements of the independence movement has caused debate in the French community and resistance amongst his own lieutenants, such as Gael Yanno, Sonia Backes and Pierre Bretegnier.

After Yanno lost his seat to Gomes in the 2012 National Assembly elections, he began challenging Frogier over his policies.

RUMP’s Bretegnier, leader of the Rassemblement group in the Congress, has also been outspoken against Frogier’s current path: “If we lost the legislative elections, above all it was because the majority of electors could not find themselves accepting our new relationship with the independence movement, especially on the question of the two flags and the election of an independence supporter as Speaker of the Congress.”

In the lead-up to the December 2012 RUMP congress, Noumea’s media widely predicted a split in the party. However, the anti-independence party avoided a formal division, although fierce internal debates were closed to the media and public view.

Bretegnier has gone on to propose a range of new policies in the lead-up to the 2014 elections: “I think of federalism, the unfreezing of the electoral roll, the creation of a consultative body representing all ethnic communities and the refusal of all new transfer of powers from Paris to Noumea.”

These policies challenge key pillars of the Noumea Accord and would roll back achievements of the FLNKS over the last decade, such as the creation of a Kanak Customary Senate and restrictions on voting rights for the provincial assemblies and Congress.

Leadership and the FLNKS

In the independence camp, there has also been debate over the best way forward with disagreements over the tactic of co-operating with the FLNKS’ long-time opponent Frogier.

For some time there have been frosty relations between leaders of the two largest independence parties—Union Calédonienne (UC) and the Party of Kanak Liberation (Palika).

Palika has often criticised UC-RUMP co-operation and denounces the Parti Travailliste (PT) slogan “Kanaky 2014”, stressing the need to win over people in the European community.

However, while Palika’s President Neaoutyine retains personal and political ties to Gomes, leaders of other independence parties in the FLNKS continue to operate together with the PT on many issues. These parties stress the need for unity to win a majority of seats for pro-independence candidates in the 2014 elections (currently supporters of independence only hold 23 seats in the 54-member Congress).

This will involve more collaboration to mobilise Kanak voters, especially in the Southern Province where Kanaks are a minority and anti-independence parties dominate the provincial assembly.

In November, the three largest groupings in the FLNKS held their party congresses: UC at La Foa; Palika in Noumea and UPM in the northernmost Belep Islands.

The tragic death in September 2012 of UC President Charles Pidjot was a major shock for the independence movement. Nephew of the famous independence leader Roch Pidjot, Charles Pidjot was a key strategist of FLNKS politics over the last five years. Under his UC presidency, Pidjot negotiated with Frogier, welcomed former President Wamytan back into the UC and rebuilt relations with Louis Kotra Uregei’s Parti Travailliste.

Just 50 at the time of his death in Vanuatu, Pidjot’s passing re-opened internal debates over tactics within the UC. However the election of Daniel Goa at the November UC Congress reaffirms the path taken by Pidjot.

The UC, like all the other independence parties, will now have to balance their own party interests with the overwhelming need for unity in the lead-up to the 2014 elections (especially in the Southern Province where a united effort is vital to mobilise support in the European-dominated bastion).

The left-wing Parti Travailliste (PT) remains outside the FLNKS, drawing much of its support from the USTKE trade union confederation. Since its creation in 2007, the PT has won a small but significant base within New Caledonia’s institutions (it currently has 30 municipal councillors, seven members of the Northern and Loyalty Islands provincial assemblies, with four members of Congress and one member in the country’s multi-party government).

Both the PT and USTKE held congresses in December 2012 and reaffirmed their policy of support for “complete and total independence.”

As other political leaders gathered in Paris to meet the French President, PT President Uregei reaffirmed his party’s call for independence in 2014: “I’ve certainly heard the speeches which talk about the need for more time for preparation before independence. But that’s what we’ve been doing already for thirty years. Ever since our generation was authorised to go to university, we’ve been getting ready. We signed agreements for economic and social rebalancing as well as decolonisation accords. The Matignon Accords were in 1988. Here, we are nearly twenty five years later —a quarter of a century! I think that it’s time.”

Mobilising the young

The need to mobilise Kanaks for the 2014 elections is even more important given the complexity of New Caledonia’s voting rules.

Kanaks are a minority in their own land after decades of migration and settlement, but the FLNKS also faces the challenge of mobilising young Kanaks to register to vote.

Many young Kanaks are disengaged from party politics, even though they proudly wear the Kanaky flag on their T-shirts. Most first time voters in 2014 were only toddlers when the Noumea Accord was signed and young people only have faint memories of Les Evènements—the violent clashes that divided the country in 1984-88.

While all French nationals resident in the colony can vote for New Caledonia’s representatives to the National Assembly, Senate and European Parliament, the vote for New Caledonia’s provincial assemblies and Congress is restricted to New Caledonian citizens. These are people who meet residency requirements established for local citizens under the 1998 Noumea Accord.

This means that the general roll of French voters is supplemented by a special roll for the local elections (at the last elections in 2009, over 18,000 French nationals—some 11 percent of the normal electorate—could not vote as they did not meet the citizenship requirement to be resident before 1998).

But the rules for voter registration are complex and often disadvantage rural Kanaks and the young (for example, people in Noumea may be registered to vote in their home province but can’t afford to travel home to vote, while those living in squatter settlements in the capital may lack the ID papers or rent and electricity notices required to prove residency for voter registration).

Teams of independence activists have been scouring local town hall records, and have discovered that at least 1,870 Kanaks are registered on the general electoral roll, but not on the special roll that allows people to participate in the Assembly and Congress elections. Unless people are correctly registered before December 2013, they will not be able to vote in next year’s elections.

Even though the young are often focused on sex, drugs and rock and roll, the spirit of independence lingers on. The graffiti “Knky 2014” (Kanaky in 2014) is scattered around town and you can find murals of Kanak martyrs painted on walls and bus stops. One mural in the working class suburb of Vallee du Tir shows four Kanak rebels: Chief Atai, who led the 1878 uprising against French settlement; Eloi Machoro, the UC leader shot down by French police in 1985; the charismatic Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, assassinated in 1989; and Jacques “Kiki” Kare, a musician, broadcaster and raconteur, whose humour and bravado inspired many before his death in 2007.

Although Noumea has changed since the days it was known as “Ville Blanche” (white city), young Kanaks face ongoing racism in the capital.

In December 2012, human rights activists won a court ruling against the popular night club Le Krystal, after many Kanaks and islanders were refused entry while tourists and the sons and daughters of French public servants could dance the night away.

Last year, many Kanaks were horrified when the Noumea Town Council sent in bulldozers to destroy a number of cases (traditional huts) that had been built in central Noumea to celebrate September 24 as the day of citizenship. The initiative to bring “the tribe to the city” had led to complex negotiations over the length of time that the cases should stay and most authorities had agreed they should be dismantled. But the early morning destruction of the houses shocked many people for the disrespect shown to an important symbol of Kanak identity.

In spite of training and education programs under the Noumea Accord, young Kanaks are still disadvantaged in education and employment. They face extra competition for jobs from qualified French migrants fleeing Europe’s economic woes, who continue to arrive in Noumea. The FLNKS and PT have begun campaigning to introduce the Noumea Accord’s citizenship principles into local law, arguing that priority should be given to New Caledonians in education, employment, social services and voting rights.

One parent told me: “This year, New Caledonia is in charge of education. So why should my taxes pay to teach the kids of those metros (metropolitan French) who’ve come here because it’s cold in Paris and they can’t find a job? They think it’s France, but we know it’s Kanaky.”

International support

As occurred in the past, the FLNKS is looking to regional and international community for support, as it prepares for the transition to a new political status.

The FLNKS (rather than the government of New Caledonia) is the official member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and independence leaders have been re-vitalising their connections with the sub-regional body.

The MSG sent a mission to New Caledonia in July 2012 to monitor the progress of implementation of the Noumea Accord. They subsequently established an FLNKS Unit within the MSG Secretariat, to act on initiatives that in the past were undertaken by the Forum Secretariat.

The MSG will also hold its annual leaders meeting in New Caledonia in June 2013, including the commemoration of the MSG’s 25th anniversary, highlighting the links across the colonial boundaries.

Dewe Gorode, Minister for Culture and Citizenship in the Government of New Caledonia, told ISLANDS BUSINESS that the government is planning to hold a Melanesia Week to co-incide with the MSG meetings: “We want to highlight New Caledonia’s cultural links across Melanesia and the wider Pacific, as New Caledonian citizens build closer ties to their neighbours.”

In 2013-2015, the FLNKS will take up the rotating chair of the Melanesian bloc at a crucial time. The elections for New Caledonia’s Provincial Assemblies and Congress in 2014 will determine the balance of forces for any subsequent decision on the territory’s future political status. In the meantime, New Caledonia’s politics will continue to heat up.

The author was a guest of the USTKE and the people of Pweevo at the December 2012 PT Congress.

Major political parties and leaders

Anti-independence:

  • Rassemblement UMP (RUMP – Rally of the Union for a Popular Movement) – Pierre Frogier

  • Avenir Ensemble (AE – The Future Together) – Harold Martin

  • Calédonie Ensemble (CE – Caledonia Together) – Philippe Gomes

Pro-independence:

  • Union Calédonienne (UC – Caledonian Union) – Daniel Goa

  • Parti de Libération Kanak (Palika – Party of Kanak Liberation) – Paul Neaoutyine

  • Union Progressiste Melanesienne (UPM – Progressive Melanesian Union) – Victor Tutugoro

  • Parti Travailliste (PT – Labour Party) – Louis Kotra Uregei

Two flags flying?

The Noumea Accord calls for new signes identitaires (national symbols) for New Caledonia, including a national anthem and even a new name for the country.  But one of the most contentious political symbols is New Caledonia’s flag. After an initiative by Pierre Frogier, the local Congress passed a law in July 2010, allowing both the French flag and the flag of Kanaky to fly together outside public buildings such as town halls, government offices and even the French High Commission.

This gesture of reconciliation by the anti-independence leader was welcomed by Kanaks, especially in the European-dominated Southern Province, but was rejected by many French voters. For some, the Kanaky flag—first raised by FLNKS leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou in December 1984—is a symbol of independence and conflict.

Philippe Gomes opposed Frogier’s initiative, arguing instead for the development of a new flag that would reflect the common identity of all New Caledonians. Driving past most town halls and government offices today, you see both flags flying, but local councils in La Foa and Bourail have both refused to fly the Kanaky flag (in both municipalities, Gomes’ Calédonie Ensemble holds the majority). In December, Gomes succeeded in lobbying for the creation of a parliamentary commission to develop a flag that would represent “both Kanak identity and the future to be shared between all of us”.

The commission has 18 members from all parties (except the Labour Party). But its deadline is May 2014—right in the middle of the next election campaign—which suggests that the flag will continue to create partisan debate.


« More articles from February 2013 edition

...or view more articles related to these topics:

...or try these related articles: