Inside Story

France’s stubborn grip

While the French president risks a new civil war just three hours’ flight from Australia, Canberra’s diplomacy remains muted

Hamish McDonald 5 October 2023 2939 words

“New imperialism”? French president Emmanuel Macron (centre) at Nouméa’s international airport in July this year with interior minister Gérald Darmanin (left), Europe and foreign affairs minister Catherine Colonna (second from right) and overseas minister Philippe Vigier. Abaca Press/Alamy Live News

On a recent rainy Sunday, a Melanesian political official named Charles Wea walked me around his home village on the island of Ouvéa, one of the Loyalty group that forms part of French-ruled New Caledonia. Wea, an Australian-trained diplomat, was back in Gossanah from his job in the capital, Nouméa, to dig up his small garden and plant yams to be harvested around the end of the year for customary ceremonies precious to the territory’s Melanesians, the Kanaks.

As we walked across the village’s central playing field after church, Wea described the scene there just over thirty-five years ago: seven French military helicopters, two dozen army trucks, and some 300 French special forces and police sharpshooters ready for action. In the bush near Gossanah, nineteen Kanaks were holding twenty-three French police hostage. They had raided the island’s gendarmerie, met more resistance than expected and killed four police before decamping to a remote cave with seized weapons and their hostages.

The raid was intended to be part of a territory-wide show of force by the Melanesians in support of independence for the country they called Kanaky. Seven months earlier, in September 1987, a narrow majority of white and other settlers had voted in a referendum to remain with France. The Kanaks had boycotted the poll in the belief that the result had been preset by officially encouraged immigration in previous decades. Kanaks had occupied traditional lands in the north of the main island, a settler ambush had killed ten Kanaks, and in January 1988, a sharpshooter had killed a Kanak would-be guerilla leader holed up in a seized farmhouse.

Despite the planning, the Ouvéa rebels found themselves acting alone in April–May 1988 — and a tough reaction to the kidnapping offered France’s ambitious conservative prime minister, Jacques Chirac, a chance to boost his prospects in the looming national presidential elections.

Just three days before Chirac faced off with Socialist incumbent François Mitterrand in the second round of the election, and after half-hearted negotiations for a peaceful surrender, Chirac ordered an all-out assault on the cave. Sixteen Kanaks were killed during the attack, two executed after their capture, and their leader was allowed to die of wounds without medical attention. Two soldiers died, and all the hostages were freed.

As it turned out, Mitterrand prevailed in the election. Chirac was replaced as PM by a Socialist, Michel Rocard, who brought the shocked Kanak leader, former Catholic priest Jean-Marie Tjibaou, and the loyalist leader, businessman Jacques Lafleur, to Matignon near Paris, locked them in, and presented a plan. Putting off a vote on independence for ten years, it pledged more training and involvement for Kanaks, and more investment in rural and island lands.

Tjibaou made a unilateral decision and signed the deal. Lafleur did too. They shook hands for a photo. And so the Matignon Accord was born. A decade later, in 1998, the Nouméa Accord postponed the independence decision for another fifteen to twenty years, when it would be put to three spaced-out referendums to make sure every voter made a considered choice.

Many Kanaks — among them Charles Wea’s uncle, a former protestant pastor named Djubelly Wea — had misgivings. A strong believer in independence, Djubelly had been among Gossanah villagers detained and roughed up by French troops looking for the cave. After the troops’ assault, he and twenty-eight others were jailed for several months in Paris without trial.

When Tjibaou came to Ouvéa on the first anniversary of the cave attack to speak at the burial site of the nineteen Kanaks, Djubelly stepped forward, shouted, “Long live Kanaky! Long live independence!” then pulled out a pistol and shot dead the former priest and his deputy, Yeiwéné Yeiwéné. A bodyguard then fatally shot their assailant too.

Walking through Gossanah, Wea and I came to a small, tiered garden with walls of coral rock that turned out to be Djubelly’s grave. Back in Nouméa, his victim, Tjibaou, is venerated as a kind of Gandhi or Mandela of the Pacific, and an Oceanic cultural centre designed by Renzo Piano is named after him. I asked Charles how his uncle’s reputation stands now.

His answer shocked me. “A lot of people think he was right,” the Kanak diplomat said. “They are saying: after more than thirty years of talk, where have we got?” Shocking it might have been, but his answer chimed with the sense that the politics of New Caledonia have come in a grand circle since 1987, with an increasing risk of an explosion like the Ouvéa cave drama.

When the time came for the series of three independence referendums promised in the Nouméa Accord, the French government was back in the hands of a conservative president, Emmanuel Macron. Like his predecessors, left and right, Macron was against giving the Kanaks any more voting weight than other French citizens, though the accord had “frozen” the electoral roll at 1998 to keep out later immigrants.

In the first referendum, in 2018, the vote for independence was 43 per cent. By the second, in 2020, it had grown to 47 per cent. The third vote was looming as a close-run thing at the end of 2021. Then, in September that year, Covid-19’s Delta variant swept through New Caledonia, quickly infecting over 13,000 of its 270,000 people. More than 280 of them died, about 60 per cent of them Kanaks.

With its communities having embarked on the customary year of mourning, the Kanak parties begged for the referendum to be postponed for a year. Quarantine restrictions limited movement, adding to the disadvantages faced by Kanak parties campaigning with village meetings while the urbanised loyalists could rely on the internet.

Macron, for his part, was facing his first re-election test in April 2022. His competition came from the further right, notably Marine Le Pen. He needed a boost for French national pride, especially after Scott Morrison delivered his humiliating submarine decision in September 2021.

When he and territories minister Sébastien Lecornu insisted the New Caledonia vote go ahead, the Kanak parties decided on a boycott. Participation fell from around 86 per cent in the earlier two independence votes to 43.9 per cent, with the non-voters concentrated in Kanak regions. Of those who voted, 96.5 per cent chose No and only 3.5 per cent Yes.

The result was immediately declared “null and void” by the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a forum of Vanuatu, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. The Pacific Islands Forum — a wider regional grouping that includes Melanesian, Polynesian and Micronesian states as well as Australia and New Zealand — was more diplomatic: the boycott needed to be considered in “the contextual consideration and analysis of the result.”

Unfazed, Macron declared that “France is more beautiful because New Caledonia decided to stay.” Local opponents of independence were also jubilant. “Tonight we are French and we will stay that way. It’s no longer negotiable,” said fervent loyalist Sonia Backès, president of the Southern Province region. To her, the Nouméa Accord was defunct, allowing the electoral rolls to be thrown open to more recent arrivals and special economic support for Kanak-dominated regions to be wound up.

Macron echoed these sentiments when he visited New Caledonia in July this year accompanied by a squadron of Rafale fighters and their air refuellers and transports designed to demonstrate France’s ability to swing military power into the Pacific. New Caledonia was French because it had chosen to be French in three referendums, he told a crowd of 10,000 tricolour-waving Europeans and Polynesians in Nouméa’s Place des Cocotiers.

Now the next stage of economic development could begin, he said, transforming locally mined nickel into a low-cost green-energy industry and expanding agriculture. The voice of France would resonate across the Indo-Pacific, boosted by a new military academy in the territory for the region’s armed forces. “If independence is to choose tomorrow to have a Chinese base, here, or be dependent on other fleets, good luck!” he declared.

On the political future, he invited loyalists and independence parties to a trilateral dialogue, mentioning more than once that the freeze on the electoral roll had always been “transitional” and had led to “exclusions and frustrations.” He had already inducted Backès into government as a junior minister, responsible for citizenship.

Macron then travelled on to Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, where he declared France was an “enhancer of sovereignty” for Pacific island nations, helping protect them against a “new imperialism.” The ironies were not lost on his audiences.

Kanak and loyalist parties were back in Paris for those talks last month, and will continue negotiating in Nouméa later this month. In Paris, Macron’s prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, now presiding over a minority government, put forward what was described, strangely, as a document martyr, a paper to be chewed over and torn apart before taking any final form.

On the critical question of electoral eligibility, the new external territories minister, Gérald Darmanin, revealed voters in territorial and regional elections would need to have been born in New Caledonia or resident for ten years. Whether or not the pro-independence alliance, FLNKS, agreed, the electoral roll would be “unfrozen” in this way before provincial elections due by May 2024.

Questions of self-determination, meanwhile, would be deferred for at least “two generations” from a new accord, Darmanin said — probably about sixty years. “There is no longer a sword of Damocles,” he added, although only the loyalists had felt thus threatened.

Aside from the backlash among Melanesian countries, Macron’s decision is seen as folly by some seasoned observers in New Caledonia, and appears likely to raise tensions and threaten unrest. Mathias Chauchat, a public law professor at the University of New Caledonia, says Macron is being likened to Bonaparte, who listened to no advice, even from his own ambassadors. “The French politicians are living in the past, in the 1960s,” he tells me. “I don’t understand it. It’s crazy. France is not a modern state like the other democracies.”

Others I spoke to wondered if the Kanak leadership would have the stomach to abandon their comfortable positions, as Macron is gambling they won’t. But being ousted after the electoral roll changes could harden their attitude. A return to violent protest was likely, and could happen without much warning. Chauchat shares those fears. “If you lose the majority, you have to go on the street, the terrain,” he says. “It would lead to unrest.”

I recount the remark Charles Wea had made at his uncle’s grave to Patrice Godin, a social anthropologist who has studied and lived among the Kanaks for decades. For Godin, Wea’s remark reinforces the risks of changing the electoral system to make any real decolonisation unimaginable for a long time.

“When political negotiations fail, it is not the most open and moderate leaders who prevail, but the most radical,” says Godin. “One wonders whether the French government is aware of this. I am currently sensing great concern among Kanak elected representatives and political decision-makers. If they fail to change the government’s policy, they know that their activists, their voters and the majority of the Kanak population will withdraw their support.”

These leaders are already facing a great deal of criticism, he adds. “If the government doesn’t listen to them, it will contribute to the rise of a new generation of Kanak politicians who will be less conciliatory than those they are discussing with today. This may take time, but it is inevitable. Kanak demands are too far advanced for the movement to die out.”

True, Godin says, the thirty-five years since the Matignon Accord have changed the Kanak people and their way of life, producing more graduates, managers and intellectuals. “But this evolution has in no way altered the Kanak desire for decolonisation. Quite the contrary, as shown by the results of the three referendum consultations on the way out of the Nouméa Accord. We might even say that this desire is more considered and it is a result of the changes that have taken place.”

The nationalist idea has matured to the point where the Union Calédonienne’s Daniel Goa and some other Kanak leaders are talking of “interdependence” with France following a transfer of sovereignty, an arrangement that recalls the pacts of free association the Cook Islands have with New Zealand or the Marianas with the United States.

While full independence was “false gold” for the Kanak parties, “it’s very difficult for them to ask for an associated state because they think France will lie to them,” Chauchat says. “There is no trust between the current French government and the Kanaks. If you want an agreement, you need trust first.”

Such an idea was proposed by Mitterrand’s high commissioner in Nouméa, Edgard Pisani, during the 1987–88 troubles, and would achieve decolonisation while maintaining French military bases. (The Kanak parties have no interest in building their own military.) But the option has since been studiously ignored by Paris, perhaps because it might win local support.

“There is no other solution, and definitely no solution in France,” says Chauchat, adding: “France never honours its words. It has always failed in its decolonisation processes… It will end in tragedy like everywhere.” The best option now for the Kanaks is to prevent the opening up of the electoral roll and keep the dream of independence alive, he says. “We have to wait.”

Macron still needs to persuade New Caledonia’s parties to agree to his new plan, and then his minority government must win a 60 per cent vote of approval from a joint sitting of the national assembly and senate to amend the French constitution, into which the Nouméa Accord is written. He is hoping his show of French force against China will win regional sympathy, which seems unlikely. The island states have no particular liking for China, but they will take its money and projects, and they will use its perceived threat to get more out of the other powers.

“If, as President Macron claims, France’s project is to contribute to the creation of an Indo-Pacific axis to stem Chinese expansion in the region, it will have to be admitted into the club of states of the region,” Godin says. “For the moment, this is proving difficult. The small island states see France as it is in the region, one of the last old-style colonial powers. All these countries are in favour of New Caledonian independence, and more or less openly support Kanak nationalist claims.”

France lacks the resources for a region-wide aid and development effort. And the United States and its allies need the support of the island states against Chinese coercion. “From this point of view, France is more of a pebble in their shoe than a reliable and legitimate ally,” says Godin. “By clinging to the last shreds of its colonial past, France is in fact a cumbersome ally.”

Still, Macron’s ambition, recalling Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, has its fans. Many Australians sympathise with Macron over the submarine affair and appreciate the way he called out Morrison as a liar. Richard Marles, the defence minister, is said to have struck a rapport with his French counterpart, Sébastien Lecornu, the same man who as territories minister helped push through the third referendum in New Caledonia. Marles is due in Nouméa in December for a gathering of Pacific defence ministers hosted by Lecornu.

Potentially complicating Australia’s approach was foreign minister Penny Wong’s appointment in March of Australia’s first ambassador for First Nations people, Justin Mohamed. The ambassador’s office, she said, “enables deep engagement with many of our closest partners including the Pacific family” and embeds Indigenous perspectives in Australian foreign policy.

Yet when she visited New Caledonia in April, Wong failed to acknowledge that the Kanaks — who were the first to settle its islands some 3000 years ago and now make up 42 per cent of the population (with Europeans accounting for 24 per cent, according to the most recent census, in 2019) — should be accorded a special right of decolonisation. “Institutional arrangements in New Caledonia are a matter for the people of New Caledonia and the French state,” was as far as she went, while repeatedly praising the French contribution to “security and prosperity in the Pacific.”

Of course, if Wong does want to raise the First Nations angle at some point — always difficult given Australia’s history — a No majority in our own referendum this month won’t help.

Meanwhile, though, pro-French loyalists are losing ground overall in the Pacific. In French Polynesia, the independence party led by veteran nuclear-testing opponent Oscar Temaru has won a majority in the assembly and now leads an autonomous government. In New Caledonia, a Kanak has just won a seat in the French senate for the first time after a vote-swapping deal with a dissident loyalist who beat Backès for the other seat. Every year recently, about 2000 white residents pack up and leave, gradually shifting the demographics, and métissage (intermarriage) between Kanaks and Polynesian migrants is on the rise.

Bonapartist or Gaullist, Macron is unheeding. His policies could well be driving New Caledonia back to the tense days of the 1980s, a condition of civil war. Younger Kanaks may see violence as a way of speeding up the French exodus. “Emmanuel Macron seems to be blinded by his ambitions for France and to understand nothing of what is happening today in New Caledonia and in the Pacific,” says Patrice Godin. “I still want to believe that it’s not too late to wake up.” •