Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 08:00 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 08:00 | SYDNEY

New Caledonia: What now after twenty years of peace?

16 June 2008 14:26

For two days in Paris, while Australians were marking Anzac Day, quiet discussions took place involving historic players from our closest Pacific island neighbour, the French collectivity of New Caledonia. The occasion was a Colloquium held 25 to 26 April, amidst the chandeliers and plush velvet carpets of the French Senate on the Left Bank of Paris. It marked the twentieth anniversary of agreements which underpin the current peace and stability of New Caledonia and which put an end to the virtual civil war of the 1980s:  the Matignon/Oudinot Accords of 1988, and the related Noumea Accord of 1998. Their effect has been to defer until the end of the 2010s any vote on the status of New Caledonia. Before then, it provides for a progressive transfer of powers to New Caledonia, and balanced economic growth inclusive of the Kanaks.

Those present were commemorating the past but with their minds directed firmly to the future. Their discussions provided the seeds of proposals for the future beyond the term of the  Nouméa Accord. They have implications not only for New Caledonia but potentially for its sister French entity, French Polynesia — and for Australia. 

Instability in New Caledonia and hostility to French policies relating to nuclear testing in French Polynesia aroused bitter opposition in Australia and universal condemnation by South Pacific island leaders at the time. Our government was obliged to devote substantial diplomatic attention to these issues in the 1980s and 1990s. Regional concern was assuaged by innovative changes in French policy and a concerted campaign by France to be a better regional citizen. Their success has paid security dividends to Australia as we tackle, with our regional neighbours, difficult problems in the Solomon Islands, PNG, Fiji and Vanuatu.

Gathered to re-consider the issues were many of the original 1988 personalities, including Michel Rocard, the former French Prime Minister who brokered the Matignon Accords; Jacques Lafleur, leader of the pro-French Caledonians; and key pro-independence figures including Déwé Gorodey and Rock Wamytan. Other senior representatives of each of the three main groups (the French state, the pro-French and pro-independence partners) were also present. A notable much-regretted absence was the giant of the process, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the original leader of the pro-independence group who was assassinated less than a year after he had signed the Accords by Kanak supporters who felt he had sold them out.

What this colloquium commemorated — and Tjibaou's death in May 1989 poignantly symbolized — were the huge compromises each of the three partners had made to secure the postponement of the doomed referendum on independence. 

For the pro-independence group — mainly Kanak but including some longstanding white residents called Caldoches — the decision to defer the vote was hard-won. Nineteen Kanaks had been killed only weeks before by of the French military, who were trying to free hostages taken by the independence group at a cave in New Caledonia. For the mainly white pro-France group, it had been galling to sign an agreement which accepted the possibility of independence outside the French republic, recognized the unique identity of the Kanaks, and accorded them special voting rights notwithstanding the French constitution's guarantee of one vote-one person. The Caldoches, many of whom were farmers, had also suffered deaths and harrassment at the hands of the independentists. For the French State, the process Rocard led of acknowledging its past mistakes, listening to each side and proposing a middle path had taken courage, a certain humility, and a large dose of creativity, given French constitutional obstacles.

The so-called 'bet on intelligence' of all the parties has paid off for twenty years. But some of the key features of the Colloquium bear sober consideration. A commemorative film reminded all present, including numerous young Kanaks, of the pressure French authorities had exerted on Tjibaou to sign the agreement. It also showed the Kanak loss of faith in the word of the French, who had promised more autonomy to New Caledonia as early as 1946, only to promote numerous contradictory statutes thereafter, often representing one step forward and several steps back. The film also underlined the difficulty Lafleur had faced in securing the support of his pro-French followers.  

Strong concern emerged in the discussions that the new generation of French parliamentarians, senior officials, media figures and public opinion in Paris show little interest, knowledge and understanding of the local context of the issues, with the risk that future critical decisions may be taken more for French domestic political reasons rather than the good of the local people. A further potentially disturbing message for the French was a renewed demand from French Polynesians present for the kinds of concessions that the French have made to New Caledonia.

The most significant outcome of the meeting may well be the ideas raised about what to do next. The Noumea Accord legal framework provides for a series of referendums on transferring full sovereignty between 2014 and 2018. But all groups acknowledged that the demographics of New Caledonia, where the Kanaks are in a minority, would inevitably dictate that any referendum on independence would fail, and could heighten sensitivities once more. The elected President of New Caledonia, Harold Martin, had only in January this year raised publicly the possibility that the referendums needed to be forestalled by a renegotiation of the Noumea Accord, raising concerns among Kanak pro-independence groups about another attempt to break promises. At the Colloquium, Déwé Gorody, the (Kanak) Vice-President, warned that the pro-independence group was watching closely for France and the pro-French parties to keep their word under the Noumea Accord, especially about transferring powers. 

Perhaps the answer lies amidst some of the innovative ideas, many stopping short of independence,  raised by several participants, drawing on the range of formulas already evident in the South Pacific:  self-government, integration, association, or even federation (the Hawaii option). 

For our part, Australia can continue to bring a spirit of cooperation and support to France and its Pacific collectivities to encourage a creative, practical and regionally appropriate long-term status for New Caledonia and French Polynesia.